Curious Case of Ray Whitney

Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s

Thursday night at the Shark Tank, the mighty Sharks were holding on to a 3-2 lead against the Hurricanes halfway through the third period, when Matt Cullen made a beauty of a backhand pass across the slot to Ray Whitney, who buried it.  It was Whitney’s 17th goal this season.

Carolina would go on to win the game 4-3 in the shootout, but what caught my eye was The Little Engine That Could…and Still Does.

Ray Whitney.

Okay, I knew that he still played in the league, so it wasn’t a surprise to see him score a goal, but every time he lights the lamp, I’m reminded of this talented player, who has been around the league since, well, it seems time immortal.

In reality, Whitney has been in the NHL since the San Jose Sharks took him in the second round of the 1991 Entry Draft.  Their first selection had been Pat Falloon, and the two young guns were held up as the future of the young Sharks.

It didn’t exactly play out that way.  Falloon, who was the second overall player chosen, after phenom Eric Lindros, played 575 career NHL games, suiting up for the Sharks, Flyers, Senators, Oilers and Penguins.  His high-water mark was his rookie season, when he scored 25 goals and added 34 assists.  For a number of reasons, Falloon only had one more 20-goal season in his nine-year NHL career.  He ended up with 143 goals and 322 points in those 575 games, a far cry from what had been expected of him.

But there I go…an article about Ray Whitney, and it detours into an examination of the career of Pat Falloon.

Both players were teammates with the WHL Spokane Chiefs for three seasons, and each one led the team in scoring for a year.  It seemed a perfect fit that both would be drafted by the Sharks, though to many, Falloon was considered the better prospect.

Whitney was chosen 23rd overall that year, the first player taken in the second round.  Players chosen before him include Scott Lachance (4th overall by the Islanders), Alek Stojanov (6th by Vancouver), Brent Bilodeau (17th overall by Montreal), and Trevor Halverson (21st overall by Washington).  Halverson got into 17 career NHL games while Bilodeau never made the big leagues.

1991 was considered a pretty strong draft class, yet a number of teams decided to pass on Whitney.  While any draft is a crapshoot, Whitney put up strong offensive numbers with the Chiefs.   He led Spokane with a whopping 185 points ( 67 goals-118 assists) in 72 games in his final year of junior, while Falloon put up 138 points in only 61 games.   Whitney’s efforts garnered him the MVP for the WHL.

Both players had amazing years, and Spokane went on to win the Memorial Cup that season.  Whitney still holds the club record for assists and points in one season.

So why was Falloon favoured over Whitney?  They’re both small men in a big man’s game; Whitney standing 5 feet 10 inches, while Falloon towered over him at 5 feet 11 inches.

Whitney had to play 10 games in a German league before spending most of his rookie pro season with the San Diego Gulls of the IHL.

The former stick boy for the Edmonton Oilers obviously had some of that offensive magic rub off on him.  After Thurday night’s win in San Jose, Whitney has played in 962 regular season NHL games, and has scored 295 goals and added 481 assists for 776 points.

In addition, Whitney has 32 points in 65 NHL playoff games, and was a member of the 2005-06 Stanley Cup Chamption Carolina Hurricanes.  During that run, Whitney played in 24 games and scored 9 goals and 6 assists.

While these numbers are not Hall-of-Fame calibre, they speak of a long and productive career.  Seven times he’s cracked the 20-goal plateau, and is well on pace to do it again this year.  Whitney’s career high was 32 goals with the 97-98 Florida Panthers; he also had one with Edmonton that season, for a career season high of 33 goals.

And that was during the dead puck era.  If anything, the hockey played since the lost season of 04-05 should favour a player of Whitney’s size and abilities, and it appeares it has.  Since the lockout, Whitney has put up 55 points in 63 games, 83 points in 81 games, 61 points in 66 games, and, so far, 42 points in 52 games.

The gentleman is a point producer.  No, he will never challenge for the Art Ross Trophy, but talk about secondary scoring.  Whitney is a reliable offensive player.  Ask the Sharks.  His goal on Thursday ran his total to 10 goals and 10 assists in 20 career games against his former team.

Whitney is currently in his 17th NHL season, though he only got into two games during the 1991-92 campaign in San Jose (and still had 3 assists).  He’s played for six teams (San Jose, Edmonton, Florida, Columbus, Detroit and Carolina), though the bulk of his playing time has been divided between the Sharks, Blue Jackets and Hurricanes.

The Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta native got to wear the colours of his beloved Edmonton Oilers for only 9 games during the 97-98 season (1 goal-3 assists), but hockey fans further south in Wild Rose Country no doubt remember Whitney.

May 19th, 1995.  It was his goal in double-overtime in Game Seven that enabled the Sharks to upend the Calgary Flames 5-4.  That was the year where the league experienced another work stoppage, and teams played a 48-game regular season sked.  The fourth-year Sharks had 42 points, while the Flames took first place in the Pacific Division with 55 points, and were expected to go far that spring.

Whitney and the Sharks saw to it that the Flames playoff woes continued.  Calgary lost in the first-round the next season as well, and then missed the playoffs for seven straight years before their run to the Cup Final in 2003-04 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As for Whitney, after that big goal, he played 60 games the next season in Northern California before splitting the 1996-97 season between the big club and Utah in the IHL and Kentucky in the AHL.  It was time for him to move on.

After that brief cup-of-coffee in Edmonton, Whitney’s career really took off when he was claimed on waivers by the Florida Panthers, where he scored those 32 goals in 97-98.  I recall that many of us at the time were surprised that Whitney reached such numbers; we had basically written him off.

Yet eleven years later, he continues to roll on, putting up the numbers, and finally getting his name on the Stanley Cup.

- Mick Kern

Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s

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