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The Progress Report: The Blueline Guru

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Ryan Whitney looks for a pass in a game vs. San Jose Sharks on November 27, 2010 (Photo by Andy Devlin / EOHC).

When the Oilers acquired Ryan Whitney on March 3rd, 2010, there seemed to be an influx of uncertainty amid the passion of Oilers fans. After all, Edmonton gave up smooth-skating offensive defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky in the process; a player that was well liked by teammates, fans and media alike. But, naturally, part of the rebuilding process is making those difficult decisions and moving personnel for the betterment of the organization long-term.

Talent aside, the Oilers had already accomplished one of their scheduled deadline tasks. The team got younger, cheaper, and brought in new leadership qualities as the group aimed to change the culture.

As it turned out, the acquisition of Whitney surfaced as a positive for both the organization and for Whitney as an individual. The 6’3” defenceman had played for two other teams, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks respectively in only three years before arriving in Edmonton.

Much like Edmonton’s new organizational philosophy of change, Whitney realized that he had a tremendous opportunity to step up and reinvent himself in a new city.

It was a small sample size, but Whitney came in and played fantastic for the Oilers down the stretch. His defensive play was solid, he showed a physical edge that many weren’t expecting, and his three goals and 11 points in only 19 games helped solidify his role as the team’s new number one defenceman.

Perhaps even more importantly, Whitney’s influence on the ice translated to a more sound game from his partners. Tom Gilbert in particular was the greatest benefactor in Whitney’s acquisition, with the calm, puck-moving defenceman showing a late-season charge that many didn’t see coming. Gilbert produced at an amazing clip, recording 19 points in the team’s final 16 games.

It was a brief audition, but Whitney’s play and immediate impact on the team pleased Oilers fans everywhere. In a season where the team finished last in the NHL standings, Whitney also brought a different kind of leadership presence. Off-ice comments were brutally honest, although fair, and provided a cathartic release for many fans.

The culture was changing. And it was changing because guys like Ryan Whitney insisted on it. 

Of course, coming into the 2010-11 season, Whitney’s early-season performances went under the scope. It was a strong finish to 2009-10, no doubt, but it would all be for not if his play wasn’t sustainable.

Ryan Whitney checks Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews (Photo by Andy Devlin / EOHC).
23-games into the new campaign and nearly two months since getting a letter stitched to his jersey, Whitney has proven that his play is more than sustainable. In fact, his performances have bettered his audition from last year, both offensively and defensively.

While the team has struggled through some growing pains, Whitney has provided the stable, calming influence that mimics the style of a Chris Pronger or Niklas Lidstrom. While it would be unfair to compare Whitney to these two for a number of reasons, the calm demeanour and slowing of the pace certainly reflects the style that the aforementioned pair are famous for.

Offensively, Whitney has provided the most consistent production of anyone on the club. His team-leading 18-assists have him ranked second in the NHL among defencemen, and his 25:58 time-on-ice average is ranked fourth in the league among all skaters. While the calm defenceman is still search of his first goal of the season, that will come soon enough with his constantly active offensive instincts guiding him.

Regardless of the team’s position in the NHL standings, Ryan Whitney has blossomed into a number one defenceman on this team.

With a season dedicated to growth and development, the need for influencing veterans is particularly important. We saw that ideology put to practice when the leadership group was named. Captain Shawn Horcoff, specifically, has been tasked with working with some of the team’s youngsters. So far, the developed chemistry and ongoing lessons have made the line of Hall, Horcoff and Eberle a formidable trio.

Such a pattern has also emerged on the blueline with Whitney’s guidance providing the leading role. Tom Gilbert, Ladislav Smid and even Theo Peckham, at times, have been given the opportunity to play alongside Whitney and the results speak for themselves.

The influence goes far beyond a pairing, however. With Whitney playing as much as he is, and providing the stable performances that he’s become famous far, the confidence level of everyone increases. Theo Peckham has taken a leap forward this season as he’s proving to be one of Edmonton’s most consistent and physical defencemen.

The opportunity to play within his limits and keep a manageable level of ice-time has assisted in his overall development on a game-to-game basis. With veterans up front providing a confident foundation, some of the pressure is alleviated.

It’s about balance, and Edmonton’s newest star on the blueline is providing it in spades.

With the team currently undergoing significant change as recent fortunes look to be turned into championship calibre seasons, the need for mentors and a strong veteran core is essential. In every sense possible, Ryan Whitney has exemplified the passion required to build a winning environment.

Solid defensive play, outstanding offensive results, and leadership qualities that define a true warrior; Whitney is showing why he wanted to reinvent himself in Edmonton, as he looks poised to become an integral component in the process of growth and eventual celebration.
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