Once the owners and NHLPA finally decide to come to their senses and put an end to the NHL lockout, Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ryan Whitney will be headed down a path of uncharted territory. As he enters the final year of his 6yr/$24 million deal, which he signed as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the now twenty-nine year old blueliner will be looking at becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his NHL career. With that being the case, one has to wonder if oft-injured defenceamn would be in the Oilers plans moving forward or if Whitney himself, would have any interest in returning to Edmonton for another kick at the can.
In his two plus years in an Oilers uniform, Whitney has easily been Edmonton's best defenceman and arguably, their most important player. However, his inability to stay healthy has seen him spend more time on the sidelines, than leading Edmonton's paper thin D core. Since being acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in a swap for Lubomir Visnovskyat at the 2010 NHL Trade Deadline, the former Olympian has missed 78 of a possible 183 games due to injury.
Not exactly the greatest of track records and to make matters worse, he was nowhere near the same player in the 51 games he suited up for during the 2011-2012 season. In his first 54 games an an Edmonton Oiler, Whitney was, hands down, this team's best player...never mind defenceman. Making what to do next, such a tough call from an organizational standpoint.
Whitney is clearly one of the glue guys in Edmonton's dressing room and seems to have really taken to the core group of talented youngsters that are littered throughout the Oilers roster. Of all the so-called "older" players, he along with Ryan Jones and Ladislav Smid, whom are both younger than former fifth overall selection of the Penguins, are the ones who have made that connection with likes of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Some might feel that it's no big deal but on this team, it is far more important than one might think.
When healthy, there is no questioning how good the seven year veteran can be. At the top of his game, he would be a top pairing D man on almost every NHL team and on this one, he is by far and away the best of the bunch. His style of play allows his D partner to simplify their game and not over think things out on the ice...sounds like the perfect partner for a guy like Justin Schultz. Problem being, Whitney's continual ankle/foot problems may have robbed him of the ability to be that player on a consistent basis.
The talented American was a mere shadow of himself, after returning to the lineup on a permanent basis last season. That great first pass was still there but he looked to be the slowest guy on the ice most nights and was routinely being undressed in his own end. Not exactly good signs for any player, least of all a defenceman.
In his defence, Whitney's struggles should not have come as a huge surprise. Considering the severity of the injury he was coming back from, the amount of time he was off his skates and not having the ability to fully strengthen his ankle during the off season, left him open for a less than flattering return. Which is exactly how it unfolded.
While the level of play he reached during the first half of the 2010-2011 season, may be something Ryan Whitney never reaches again, he still has the tools necessary, over the long haul, to be a solid top three NHL defenceman. That is of course, if the injuries stay away and at this stage of the game, that is a rather big if.
The talented rearguard genuinely seems as though he wants to be a part of what lays ahead for this franchise, now it's just a matter of seeing how and if he still fits into the big picture...both on the ice and within the team's salary cap structure.