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Is Ryan Whitney Ready To Be A Number One Defenseman?

Conventional wisdom in and around Edmonton points toward the Oilers counting on Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert as their top defensive pairing in 2010-2011, something that neither of them has been asked to do thus far in their careers.  To find out if Whitney is capable of doing so, I turned to FrankD, Managing Editor of the outstanding Pensburgh here at SB Nation.

Copper & Blue:  What prevented Ryan Whitney from becoming the number one guy in Pittsburgh?

FrankD:  Well the number one guy during Whitney's time in Pittsburgh was without a doubt Sergei Gonchar.  I don't think this necessarily affected him in the sort of way where he felt like he had to "battle" or "fight" Gonch for the number one spot, but he was kind of a fragile specimen to begin with.  I say this mainly because he was pretty "soff" on defense and was often the target of criticism from former head coach Michel Therrien.  You could break that down in two ways though: was it strict, honest criticism with the intent to motivate?  Or demoralizing, demeaning criticism meant to throw him under the bus?  Whitney's 59 points in 06-07 looked to be the missing piece on the blue line.  Or better yet, the complimentary piece.  Expectations were high for him to come out the following season and make a similar effort.  When he dropped off nearly 20 points in 07-08, the Pittsburgh faithful remained optimistic that he'd come around in 08-09, especially when it was revealed during the offseason that he played through a foot injury.  He had some offseason surgery that kept him out of the lineup for the first few weeks of the season.  When he came back, something still didn't look or feel right.  I wouldn't go as far as to say it looked like he lost a step, but his conditioning level certainly wasn't up to par.  Whatever the case, a good number of Pens fans rejoiced when he was traded away for Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi in December 08.

For more on Whitney, check out David Staples' interview with a couple of Pittsburgh hockey writers who build an excellent scouting report on Whitney

After the jump, I look at Whitney's underlying stats.

Copper & Blue:  What is Whitney's biggest strength?  When he's on his game, who does he remind you of?

FrankD:  When healthy, Whitney is a very strong skater.  He has a pretty strong and accurate wrist shot too, and isn't afraid to let a few one-timers go from the point either.  Whit's a good puck-moving guy too, and left an impression in Pittsburgh even long after his departure.  A give-and-go, back-door pass to a defenseman crashing the net is still referred to as "The Whitney Play" by many Pens fans.  When he's playing at his best, I'd say he reminds me of a poor man's Duncan Keith.  Or maybe Brian Campbell.  From an offensive perspective at least.


Though Frank sees his offensive numbers falling off after 2006, it seems that the 59 points (.72 points per game) in 2006 were the anomaly.  Whitney's other four professional seasons have seen him post between .479 and .558 points per game, a very narrow seven point band over an 82 game season.  If Whitney stays healthy, history suggests that he'll score between 39 and 46 points for the Oilers in 2010-2011. 

Enough about the counting numbers, what about the microstats*?

GP G A P ES +/- PPP RCorsi
Corsi Rk
2005 - Ryan Whitney 68 6
N/A 16 N/A N/A N/A 14.93 N/A N/A
2006 - Ryan Whitney 81
+17 33
N/A N/A 5/6 15.66 N/A N/A
2007 - Ryan Whitney 76 12
+5 22
-5.6 7/7 5/7 14.96 45.9 52.1
2008 - Ryan Whitney 48 2
-10 11
-8.8 6/7 4/7 17.69 56.9 57
2009 - Ryan Whitney 81 7
+3 17
3/7 18.53 48.8 49.4

*Courtesy of Gabriel Desjardins'

What do these numbers tell us about the level of competition Ryan Whitney has faced?

Qualcomp suggests Whitney has never played first pairing minutes, and certainly never been a number one defenseman thus far in his career.  He started out playing very easy minutes in Pittsburgh and has moved to second-pairing minutes over the last two years.  If Tom Renney does decide to  play any sort of power-versus-power with Whitney, it will be the first time in his career that Whitney will play tough minutes. 

What about his Corsi?  It looks like he's nothing to sneeze at when it comes to possession.

Well, Relative Corsi shows that Whitney hasn't fared well on the shot clock, and it was his work with Edmonton's horrendous defense that makes 2009 look good.  But the odd thing is his zoneshift numbers.  Over the last three years Whitney has had varying degrees of difficulty in his on-ice starting position, but he's either held his own or driven the puck in the right direction to have a positive zoneshift in all three years. 

Copper & Blue:  How does Whitney falter?  Do you have a handle one what causes that?  When he's off of his game, who does he remind you of?

FrankD:  Whitney's defensive game isn't the best.  He's not physical.  Not gritty.  He'll stand up for teammates and such, but he's not going to be the team's heavy hitter.  I'd like to blame footwork or positioning because there were times when he'd just get completely burned.  Of course, I'm going from memory of his last two seasons with the Penguins and he was injured and/or recovering for a good part of that time so it may not be the most accurate assessment at this point.  But the thing is, he's a one-dimensional defenseman.  When his offensive game isn't "on" you may forget he even suited up for the game.  When he's off his game I don't think I compare him to anyone really.  I just accept that evidence as reasoning behind why Pittsburgh sent him packing.


Look no further than December of 2009 to see evidence of Whitney faltering, and in a big way.  When Frank says "you may forget he even suited up for the game", he's talking about numbers that just fall off the face of the earth when he's off of his game.  Earl Sleek broke down Whitney's season in his Eulogy on Whitney's time with Anaheim.  I've updated Earl's chart of Whitney's even strength underlying statistics to show just how awful the month of January was for Whitney, and I've separated his time with the Oilers and Ducks.  Thanks to Vic Ferrari for the tools to make this happen.

Ryan Whitney's Even-Strength Shooting Results In 2009-2010

Shots For
Shots Against
before Dec. 29 38 +36 -27 +9 352 366 .490 632 639 .497
Dec. 29 - Jan. 27 16 +5 -15 -10 107 170 .386 191 308 .383
Jan. 28 - March 3rd
8 +10 -4 +6 65 86 .430 122 158 .436
With Edmonton
+5 156 152
.513 221


Whitney was outshot for the entire season, but lived the charmed life except for January.  His scoring chances numbers during his time with the Oilers more closely reflect his Corsi percentage rather than his goal differential.  In 19 games, Whitney played 237 minutes of even strength time and was barely outchanced, 77-78.  His on ice shooting percentage of 13% through those 19 games bailed him out.  

Whitney's expected partner at this point is Tom Gilbert because of the string that the two were able to put together over those last 19 games.  A look at their stats at shows the two combined for a .460 Corsi percentage and withstood a .867 even strength save percentage via a 14.5% even strength shooting percentage and were +2 during that time.


What does it all mean?

In the end, Tom Renney isn't likely to run Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert out for defensive zone faceoffs against the toughs.  I believe Renney will seek to protect Whitney and Gilbert with as many favorable starting positions as possible (likely with Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky) and attempt to get the most out of his offensive zone faceoffs.  Doing so will mean that Ladislav Smid and Kurtis Foster (as of right now - hopefully resolving the Souray situation will mean adding a second-pairing defenseman, even if it is Sheldon Souray) are about to face the most difficult competition and starting positions of their career.