Ryan Whitney has elevated his game this season.
He’s improved his defensive play and, on the other end of the ice, become more aggressive attacking the puck and firing shots on net.
The results are evident as Whitney is the Penguins’ fifth-leading scorer with 43 points (10+33) through 57 games. That’s five more points than he amassed in 68 games during his rookie season in Pittsburgh one year ago.
So, how has Whitney been able to improve so much in such a short time?
He keeps things simple.
“The high-skilled players, sometimes they have a tendency to make a high-risk play,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “This is something we try to stress with our team is that they have to try to make the high-percentage play. If we’re making the high-percentage play that means we’re patient and we’re making the right decision with the puck and not forcing anything and making the other team commit mistakes.”
Simplifying things has allowed Whitney to find his comfort zone. And, Whitney has been able to build confidence from comfort.
“I think a lot of it comes down to how much better our team is,” he said. “It’s easier to look better and play better when you have a great team. Especially, lately we’ve been playing really well. Just being in my first full year in the NHL, I feel more comfortable. The more comfortable you feel, the game slows down a little and you get a little more confident out there. There are a bunch of things I think have helped me play pretty well this year. I think, mainly, I am just looking to be more consistent.”
Whitney has been a consistent contributor for the Penguins. He has points in 12 of his last 15 games – including a career-best seven-game points streak.
“Coach always tells me to be aggressive and he means with the puck, without the puck, dropping into the play, staying back and just being aggressive the whole time. Part of being aggressive is shooting the puck more and I’ve tried to do that, getting pucks to the net,” he said. “Just basically, I’m trying to do a good job making the smart decision and making the easy play. If you make the easy play and are consistent every game, I think a good player can be consistent for a long time and then, all of a sudden, people will say he’s great because consistency is what makes a player great.
“I think consistency is something every young player has a tough time with besides [Sidney Crosby]. It’s unbelievable how consistent he is. That’s probably his biggest strength is that every game he brings it. That’s something to strive for and look to.”
Whitney’s ascension has been a quick one this year. After getting his first taste of the NHL last season, he wanted to move forward in his sophomore campaign. He has certainly done that. It was especially noticeable in January as the 23-year-old racked up 14 points (4+10) in the month. And, he was selected to play for the Eastern Conference team at the YoungStars game as part of the NHL All-Star Week in Dallas.
“It’s early in February, but I am a better hockey player than I was in early February last year. That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “I think there’s definitely plenty I can still improve on. Every time I step on the ice, I am trying to be better at something and improve something in my game. I hope two or three years from now that I’ve really improved and become a real elite player – that’s the goal of every hockey player. I’d like to be an elite defenseman in this league and I think I am taking the right steps trying to get there.”
Whitney’s improvement hasn’t just come on the offensive end. He is a defenseman, after all.
“Over the course of the years, he’s improved a lot defensively,” Therrien said. “He’s solid; in good position. He’s always going to move the puck well because that’s his bread and butter. He has good vision. He’s the kind of defenseman who is always trying to get better with his overall game. He’s a young kid who wants to improve. Every year, he’s getting better.”
There aren’t many statistics to measure Whitney’s defensive success. The big one is his plus-minus rating. Whitney has a plus-2 rating – which is an improvement over his minus-7 rating from a year ago.
“This new NHL, you always hear Coach Therrien say it’s just about having a good stick on defense – you have to keep your stick on the ice or you’ll get a holding or hooking penalty,” he said. “It’s about being in a good position and having your stick in the right place. I am a pretty big guy and I am not overly physical. I think I am physical enough where I stop a guy from getting to the front of the net and stuff like that, but I don’t throw huge hits. It’s just about having a good stick and I think my stick has really improved this year being in the passing and shooting lanes.
“I don’t want to be known as an offensive defenseman. I’d like to be known as a really good overall defenseman. That involves skating well, moving the puck and having a good stick in your own zone.”
Overall, Whitney’s play is a reflection of the improved play of the entire Penguins defensive corps.
“I think everyone is really playing great. I’ve played with Brooks Orpik for about two months now and I think he’s playing outstanding. He’s probably playing the best hockey of his career,” Whitney said. “Mark Eaton is a great player and Sergei Gonchar has been amazing all year. You look at him and what a year he’s had with his points, and he plays the penalty kill and against top lines. It’s real impressive to see what he’s doing.
“Everyone is playing well. Everyone is comfortable and I think everyone gets along. There is some good competition with seven defensemen, but I think everyone wants to see each guy succeed.”
And, the Penguins are having a good time succeeding.
“It’s unbelievable. Guys are so pumped to be at the rink. We’re such a close team. Everyone gets along,” Whitney said. “We’re led by [Sergei Gonchar] and [Mark Recchi], the two older guys. It’s just a great team to be on. We believe in each other and I don’t think we really have a heavyweight, per se, but you see how many guys stick up for each other if there is a cheap hit. It’s almost like we’re brothers in a way. A lot of us have grown up together and, with the success we’re having, it makes it even better to be at the rink with your buddies.”