Puck Potpourri: Ray Whitney:Hall of Pretty Good

In 1991 the newly formed San Jose Sharks used their first two selections in the NHL Entry Draft to draft a pair of Memorial Cup winning teammates.  The Sharks took the opportunity to grab Spokane Chiefs forwards Pat Falloon and Ray Whitney. In their draft years Falloon and Whitney were offensive dynamos. Falloon scored a ridiculous 64 goals in 61 games and finished with 138 points while being named Memorial Cup MVP. Not to be outdone by his talented teammate, Whitney tallied 67 goals in 72 games and ended the season with 185 points and was named to the Memorial Cup All-Star team. Falloon would go on to be drafted second overall and while Whitney would go in the second round, 23rd overall.

At this point, their careers would go in very different directions. In the Sharks inaugural season, Falloon had, what would turn out to be, a career year netting 25 goals and 59 points. Whitney split the majority of the 1991-92 season between the Cologne (former team of Uwe Krupp) in Germany and the San Diego Gulls of the IHL. Regardless of the league, Whitney continued to rack up big numbers. In a mere 10 games in Germany, Whitney put up 9pts (3 goals, 6 assists) and then lit the IHL on fire. Coached by Don Waddell, Whitney put up 90 points in 63 games. He also got his first cup of coffee with extra sugar that season. He got into two NHL games with the Sharks and posted 3 assists. As sweet as it was, he would need more time to hone his craft in the minors and continue to demonstrate that he was capable of playing in the NHL.

It’s a mystery to me why Whitney didn’t get a chance to be an NHL regular after this season. The Sharks finished their inaugural season with a record of 17–58–5 while scoring a mere 219 goals. For reference sake, one of the worst teams ever assembled, the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators, scored 202 goals in their inaugural season. Clearly, this was an expansion team desperate for offense. They also had to desperate to make a mark in the Golden State where hockey was still a relatively new endeavour for most people outside of Los Angeles. The fans needed something to gravitate towards. This was not the age of taking it slow with your draft picks. Teams needed young faces and skill to put asses in the seats. Surely if Falloon was ready, then so was Whitney.

Apparently he was close, but just not quite there yet. Again, he was to split the 1992-93 season between the Kansas City Blades of the IHL and the San Jose Sharks. He continued his dominance of the IHL and scored 20 goals and registered 53 points in 46 games. In his brief 24 game stint with San Jose, he put up a respectable 10 points but finished a -14. Amazingly, the Sharks team managed to regress following their expansion season. They finished with an atrocious 11–71–2 record while finishing one goal shy of the franchise record, 218. Perhaps he was just being sheltered from the colossal whirlwind of shit hockey and lowered expectations. Whatever it was, it worked.

If I were to rank ugliness in San Jose in those early years it would go something like this:

  1. The Sharks uniforms
  2. The arena name “Cow Palace”
  3. The Sharks combined 28 wins over their first two seasons
  4. Selecting Mike Rathje third overall in the 1992 draft
  5. Arturs Irbe’s helmet

In hindsight, whatever the Sharks did with Whitney worked. Falloon would never be the same player and failed to ever reach the potential those scouts saw in him back in 1991. In the 1993-94 season Whitney would become a NHL regular. He played in 61 games and put up 37 points with 13 goals and 24 assists and registered 4 points in 14 games in the playoffs. Between the 1993-94 season and 1996-97 season Whitney scored 44 goals and had 64 assists (108 points) in  172 games (0.63 PPG).

Inexplicably, 1996-97 would be his last season with the Sharks. He played in 12 games for San Jose that season as he again returned to the minors where he played for the Utah Grizzlies of the IHL (43 games, 13 goals, 35 assists, 48 points) and Kentucky Thoroughblades of the AHL (9 games, 1 goal, 7 assist, 8 points). His IHL career stats are outstanding. In 152 games he registered 191 points with 69 goals. He had done enough in the minors and would never see a coach bus for the rest of his career. Check this from an ESPN interview with Whitney in 2007:

Q: During the 1996-97 season, you spent time in both the AHL and IHL. Did you wonder at any point if your NHL career was over?

A: I didn’t that year because I just signed a brand new contract. I was making $800,000 in the minors. It was a three-year deal, so I wasn’t concerned about my future. The next summer, my deal was bought out by the Sharks, and then I got worried. I couldn’t get a contract anywhere. All I could get was a tryout with Edmonton. I barely played there, and then I got put on waivers. Luckily, I got picked up and things have been great ever since.

By 1997 the Sharks had rid themselves of their two prized draft picks as Whitney was signed as a free agent by the Edmonton Oilers. Pat Falloon had been dealt to Philadelphia in 1995.

To add further intrigue to his arrival in Edmonton was the fact he already had a long history with the club. He had been a stick boy for the Oilers in the 1980s. His father, Floyd, was the Oilers practice goalie for 17 seasons as well as being their locker room security guard. To pile on the weird universal karma, Ray also scored his first NHL goal against the Oilers. Unfortunately for Ray, he only played in 9 games with the Oilers before being waived and picked up by Florida. He had put up half decent numbers with the Oil in those 9 games though. Four points in 9 games isn’t half bad by my standards. I guess his performance was underwhelming and wasn’t seen a piece moving forward on those big and fast Edmonton teams of the late 90s.

Florida would mark the beginning of a long and secure ride in the NHL. No more waivers and no more minor league per diems. He was now a commodity. He had a real coming out party in his first year in Florida and probably made the Oilers regret their decision to wave him just a little bit. He put up 61 points (32 goals and 29 assist) in 68 games. Not bad for a waiver pickup. I wonder how many fantasy hockey teams looked like geniuses for picking him up that season? In his four years in Florida his stat line reads like this: 273 games played, 97 goals, 130 assists and 227 points. Ray was doing just fine in another state where the sun shines bright and the beach life is alright. He also made his All-Star debut in 2000. The first of two in his long career.

In 2001 Ray’s run in Florida would come to an end as he was part of his first NHL trade when the Panthers sent him to Columbus for Kevyn Adams and a 4th round selection (who turned out to be Michael Woodford) in 2001. After playing two full seasons in Columbus and putting up two more 20+ goal seasons he found greener pastures as a free agent in Detroit in 2003. He was now on his fifth team after 12 years of hockey played in three different countries and four different leagues.

He wasn’t done yet. After a down year which saw him score only 14 goals and 29 assists, he was bought out by the Red Wings and took his game to Carolina as a free agent. This is where most of us know him best. In his first season in Carolina he reached the top of the hockey world and won the Stanley Cup. He was a key contributor to that championship team with 9 goals and 15 points. In his five years in Carolina he had four 20+ goal seasons and had a total of 334 points (0.9 PPG).

He signed a two-year, 6 million dollar salary with Phoenix in 2010. At age 38, he put up 57 points in his first season in the desert. This season he continues to defy age. His TSN bio currently reads “Whitney is hot (7 points in last 5 GP).” He’s first on the team in scoring with 14 points and 6 goals.  If he keeps up this pace, he will come close to eclipsing the 1000 point mark.

That puts him in pretty elite company. There are only six active NHL players with 1000 points (Jagr, Selanne, Lidstrom, Alfredsson, Iginla and Thornton). He is the next closest active player to reaching 1000 points. His resume reads like a mercenary’s. He has played on seven different NHL teams in his 19 seasons. Although known to be a streaky player, like most snipers, on average, he has scored a goal every three games at the NHL level. His numbers probably aren’t good enough for the Hall of Fame. Just look at the difficulty Dino Ciccarelli had getting in, and he has 1200 career points in almost the same number of games as Whitney.

His legacy will be an interesting one. He never played for a team long enough to warrant his number being retired. He only made two All-Star teams but did win a Stanley Cup. His career numbers are fantastic but he was never around long enough in one place to be regarded as a franchise player the way Iginla, Lindstrom or Alfredsson have despite a similarity in numbers. What is important about Whitney is that he played in non-traditional markets for most of his career and helped build the game. As I mentioned at the beginning, it was important for the Sharks to have success to help build their fan base. Whitney certainly made his mark in a few different cities that needed all the help they could get to sell tickets and put a winning product on the ice. I’m sure there’s a few Caniacs out there that just love this guy to death. I don’t blame them, I would too.

History relies on people to pass down stories from one generation to the next. They usually focus on the greats, the long tenured and the characters. Whitney doesn’t exactly fall into any category because of how often he bounced around despite putting up respectable and consistent numbers throughout the years. He’ll never wow anyone with any one single season statistic but his body of work is as impressive as it gets these days and something all players can aspire to.

At the end of the day, what more can you asks for than longevity, consistency and a Stanley Cup ring?