The big news of the day in advance of the Oilers/Stars game this evening is the decision by coach Ralph Krueger to bench two of his veteran Ryan’s. The Ryan Smyth story is certainly the headline due to Smyth’s beloved status with the Oiler faithful, but Ryan Whitney being a "healthy" scratch for the third time in the last five games is also a significant development.
If you’ve read any of our game previews, game threads or post-game summaries this season, you’ve almost undoubtedly come across a scathing review of Whitney’s inability move laterally due to his career-altering ankle problems.
Finally today, after learning he would be out of the line-up again following the Oilers being drastically outplayed by the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets on the weekend, Whitney spoke to the media about his current situation:
"I’m very frustrated…I mean, I want to play. I mean, I don’t really know. We got outshot 40-13 and I’m not playing so I think that kind of shows where their thought on me is, and I just don’t really know what to say. I think (Coach Ralph Krueger) said, he did say he wants to talk to me today, so I’m going to ask him what it’s going to take to get back in the line-up."
In a story that likely doesn’t make either side happy, (Whitney is not happy about being scratched, and the Oilers’ coaching staff is not happy about having one of their highest paid players not being able to perform at a level deserving of a spot in the line-up), I think a certain amount of credit is due to both parties for the manner in which they have handled the situation.
Firstly, 100% full credit to coach Krueger. He has to do what is best for his team to try and win games. If his belief is that the team stands a better chance of getting the two points on a given night with Potter, Corey in the line-up instead of Whitney, it is incumbent upon him to keep #6 in the press box. Krueger is sending a message to his management team that reinforcements are badly needed and that there has been some error in the evaluation of some of the current players on the roster in terms of their ability to contribute at a level that puts the team in a position to be competitive.
On Whitney’s behalf, I can certainly understand his frustration. The truth of the matter is that Whitney possesses a number of skills that can be considered well above average for an NHL blueliner. He has excellent vision on the ice and is a simply sublime passer. Additionally, he’s not at an age where those skills have deteriorated to any substantial degree. So when he sees the likes of Potter or Marc Fistric playing ahead of him in the line-up, it has to be tough to accept.
Almost to a man NHL players have enormous egos and it has to be difficult for Whitney to believe that despite his strengths that his overall game has fallen to the level that he can no longer hold on to a place in the starting line-up. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened. Despite the things Whitney does well, his ankle problems have made him incapable of skating at the minimum requisite level for an NHL Dman. As a result, none of the other good stuff matters because the team is at constant risk of surrendering goals against when he is on the ice.
To his credit Whitney has thus far handled the situation as well as can be expected (at least publicly). I don’t think anyone would expect him to be pleased about his current place on the depth chart, but he's stayed professional thus far, while also being honest about the possibility that his days may be numbered in Edmonton,
"I would have to say right now that’s not looking (like I have a long-term future in Edmonton). I mean they are paying me a lot of money and I’m not playing, so, I like it here a lot. I really like the guys and I like playing here, but I don’t think that they necessarily like me a lot right now. And y’know I’d like to play. I’m just frustrated."
Whitney also made it clear that any potential move to another team will not come at his request:
"No, no, I’m not going to do that (ie: ask for a trade), I mean, I…it’s not really my place to say. I mean, I just, I think they’d be looking to do it more than I would, I mean why would they pay me all this to just not play. I believe I can help a lot of teams. I mean, I don’t really know what else to say. I hope it’s here. I really like it here."
The bottom line here is that it’s a situation that nobody is pleased with. The ideal solution to the problem is for Whitney to play better, but sadly that may not be possible.
Obviously the relationship between Whitney and the coaching staff is strained right now, and the best situation for both parties may simply be to part ways as soon as possible, whether that be during the season (if Steve Tambellini can work out a deal) or when Whitney’s contract expires in July.
Watching a player struggle to get to a level of play that they believe they can attain, but their body just won't allow them reach is difficult to witness. Whitney's career is being taken from him by injuries, and it's unfortunate for everyone involved. Right now, the only thing harder than watching it, is for both player and team to find a way to accept this new reality and figure out the best way to move forward.