Thursday, February 08, 2007

Whitney Comes Of Age

In 2007 so far, the top scoring defenceman in hockey has been Ryan Whitney of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has 5 goals and 12 assists for 17 points so far this year. He is one point ahead of MVP Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit and three ahead of teammate Sergei Gonchar (who sit second and third in defenceman scoring this season).

Pittsburgh is "undefeated" in their last 11 games (they lost two of the games in their undefeated streak - one in overtime and one by shootout). This streak dates back to early January. It is no coincidence that Pittsburgh has played very well when they have had big performances from their top two defencemen. You can say all you want about Sidney Crosby, who has been the best forward in the NHL this year being the reason for Pittsburgh's improvement, but they are clearly not a one man team. The mere fact their winning streak comes when the defence starts to contribute offensively shows how important Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar are to the Pens. I argue that Nicklas Lidstrom is a more vital part of Detroit that Crosby is of Pittsburgh.

Ryan Whitney is the forgotten top draft pick for Pittsburgh. He was chosen 5th overall in 2002 (in the next four years they picked either first or second and picked Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal). When many people talk of Pittsburgh's young core they only include the latter four, but Whitney is just as integral a part of it.

It is a shame that liberalized free agency and a salary cap will probably keep us from seeing how good this group could have been if they all hit their primes together. Pittsburgh was locked into the rebuilding method of drafting early for several years in a row (by virtue of being a really bad team) and thus getting a core of talented players before the lockout changed the rules on them. I don't think it will work out nearly as well as it had in the past because they won't be able to keep these players together much longer. When these players begin to exit their entry level contracts, Pittsburgh will be squeezed under the salary cap. I think a "rebuilding" plan like Anaheim's is the way to go.

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