Life is just Ducky for NHLer Whitney
Pronger helps former Penguin raise his game in Stanley Cup playoffs
Leaving the only NHL home he's known was a big enough adjustment for Ryan Whitney without the challenge of winning over Anaheim hockey fans.
Ducks management knew it was getting a big puck-moving defenceman but was more impressed with Whitney the person shortly after he arrived in a Feb. 26 trade from Pittsburgh for popular forward Chris Kunitz.
"He was traded at two in the afternoon and played at 7 o'clock that night," Ducks senior vice-president of hockey operations David McNab told CBCSports.ca between Games 4 and 5 of his team's Western Conference quarter-final against San Jose.
"He could have easily said: 'Well, I'll play tomorrow,' but he went straight to the rink [from visiting his mother in his hometown of Boston] and jumped in the lineup. I thought that showed a lot about [his character].
"He's a great guy and the players like him. The first time I met him, he was very respectful of the trade and the fact Chris [Kunitz] was popular here and a good player, which was impressive."
From Day 1 with the Ducks, Whitney has been paired with six-time NHL all-star and Olympic gold medallist Chris Pronger, a tandem head coach Randy Carlyle has leaned on heavily in the opening round of the playoffs.
They combined for two points and played no less than 23 minutes in a 4-0 Game 4 win over San Jose, while the 26-year-old Whitney logged a game-high 28:11 with two hits and three blocked shots in a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 5.
"In the situation we're in right now, they know the importance of the game, the difficulty of the other team they're playing," McNab said. "They prepare themselves … and they work at it."
The Ducks won the series 4-2 and will face the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in a West semifinal.
Pronger's presence huge
At the time of the trade, both Anaheim and Pittsburgh were out of the playoff picture, leading some hockey observers to believe the acquisition of Whitney was a precursor to the 34-year-old Pronger being dealt to a Stanley Cup contender.
Fortunately for Whitney, Ducks general manager Bob Murray refused to ship Pronger out of town at the league's March 4 deadline.
"He makes it easy on the ice," said Whitney of Pronger, a key contributor to Anaheim's Stanley Cup title run in 2007. "He does a ton of talking, which if you ask any player, makes the world of difference to know you have time [to move the puck or make a move].
"He makes a great first pass out of the zone and … he is great defensively just picking guys up in front of the net."
Despite the fact he hasn't scored with the Ducks, Whitney's presence has boosted a power play that ranked sixth in the 30-team NHL with a 21.6 per cent success rate when he arrived and finished the regular campaign fifth at 23.6 per cent.
A force on the Penguins' power play last season, the four-year NHLer missed the first 33 contests of the 2008-09 campaign after undergoing surgery on his left foot in September. Upon his return, the 2002 first-round draft pick was a target of boos and posted 13 points and a minus-15 rating in 28 games.
McNab chalked up the ineffectiveness to getting back into game shape following a long layoff.
"He's a young and very talented defenceman with a lot of years left on his contract," said McNab of Whitney, who's in the second year of a six-year deal with an annual salary cap hit of $4 million.
Proven playoff performer
"He can skate, he's big [at six-foot-four, 220 pounds] and moves the puck. He's also played in the playoffs, he's played in the finals [last year against Detroit] so you know you're getting a guy who's proven he can play in pressure situations."
Whitney has acquitted himself well, collecting four points in the first six games of this year's post-season. He has also learned the level of play is raised a notch come playoff time and often from game to game.
"To go through to the finals last year and have the pressure and competitiveness increased as the playoffs go on," Whitney said, "It's good to know you've been there and done that."
But if he begins to rest on his laurels and get too relaxed on the ice, Whitney knows a meeting with Carlyle will soon follow.
About a week after joining the Ducks, Whitney was hauled in for a meeting with the former NHL blue-liner and shown approximately 15 video clips from two of his games in an Anaheim uniform.
"He told me, 'This isn't criticism, I'm coaching you here,'" said Whitney, who recorded 10 assists in 20 regular-season games with the Ducks. "There's been times when he's been mad at me and there's been times he's been pleased with me. It helps you as a player to get feedback, whether it is positive or negative.
"But by no means do I think I have stopped trying to earn my ice time and role with this team."
As a result, the Ducks stand a chance to advance to the conference finals.