Gregor: Whitney ready to be a better player for Oilers
Post-season conversation with Krueger gave defenceman food for thought over the summer
EDMONTON - As he sat across the table listening to his coach analyze his season, the words wounded his pride and dented his Boston ego, primarily because deep down in his soul he knew the message was true.
It’s been nine months since he listened to his coach, a man he deeply respects, outline in simple yet very precise words how he felt about his veteran rearguard.
“My mindset is night and day from last year and that goes back to my exit meeting with Ralph (Krueger),” Ryan Whitney said to me moments before catching a flight from Boston to Edmonton. “At that time, no one knew Tom (Renney) wouldn’t be back, so it was just the defensive coach talking to me.
“He made it pretty clear that he was a little disappointed in me. How when I came back from injury, I thought I should be on the first power play and I did a little bit of sulking.
“Looking back, having a letter on my sweater, it really was unacceptable. I looked at myself in the mirror over the summer and during the lockout and that’s why I’m looking forward to coming back so much. I’m going to get better no matter how much time I play, no matter what pair I’m on, or what my ice time is. I’m really going to enjoy it.
“I’m finally back playing every day. I’m a part of the team and I feel part of the team. I haven’t felt that way for two years, due to my injuries. More so, I want to be looked at as a positive guy in the room, because there were many days when I was down and in a bad mood around the rink. That can affect the other guys.”
The former Boston University student with a quick wit and sardonic tongue is usually dishing out the sharp one-liners or stinging jabs rather than receiving them. It wasn’t easy to hear those words from his coach, even though they were accurate, but thankfully Whitney’s childhood had given him a thick skin.
His father, Dan, coached him until he was 10. He was tough on his kids, but extremely fair.
“Growing up he always said, ‘You don’t need another friend, you need a dad,” said Whitney.
They are extremely close now, and Krueger’s speech resonated with Whitney, mainly because he doesn’t like disappointing men he respects. When Krueger looked Whitney in the eye last April and told him he was disappointed, it got the defenceman’s attention.
“Ralph’s exit meeting really made me do some soul searching and it’s going to help me be positive, no matter what my situation is this year. With my injuries, I realized how quickly it (hockey) can be taken away from you, and Ralph’s words put me in a much better frame of mind.
“Ralph is such a positive guy that even when he is disappointed or pissed off at someone, he’s going to word it in a way that doesn’t necessarily make you feel good, but he just does it in a way that you are interested in talking to him and being interested in what he has to say. There is so much positive energy that comes out of him; he really believes in positive mental attitude.
“That’s why he was so disappointed in me, just seeing how down I was and me bringing other guys down by my mood, and it has hit me pretty hard. That’s how he has already helped me and I’m very excited that he is the head coach. He has a way of getting a player’s attention and challenging you in a positive way,” said Whitney.
Because he was named head coach on June 27, Krueger has yet to address the Oilers as a team, but he’s already made an impression on many of his players. Krueger has a reputation of being a great communicator who isn’t afraid to tell players what they might not want to hear, and it is evident Whitney is ready to play hard for him.
Whitney’s attitude adjustment will be a welcome addition, but he’s also well aware of the questions surrounding his health, and if he can still be a top-pairing defenceman.
“I do feel I have a lot to prove to others, but mainly to myself, that all the work I put in this summer and fall will make me a better player. I’ve been skating basically five days a week since Sept. 1 and I did some power-skating over the summer for the first time in three years. I feel my leg strength is back to where it was when I was playing well.
“My foot is only an issue when I think about. There are certain times when I notice it, but it won’t be an issue. I need to be strong positionally, have a good stick, and I’ve worked at becoming better at things that I wasn’t good at before,” he said.
Whitney’s play could ultimately be the difference between the Oilers being a playoff contender or a sitting in 12th place. There has been an incredible amount of hype surrounding Justin Schultz, and deservedly so with 48 points in 34 games in the American Hockey League, but it is unrealistic to expect him to be great offensively and be solid in his own end.
The Oilers, and Krueger, desperately need Whitney to be the player he was during his first 54 games as an Oiler, when he played 25 minutes a night, was plus-20, scored 38 points and was a leader on the ice.
He was a shadow of that player when he returned for 51 games last season, tallying 20 points, going minus-16, playing 20 minutes and, in his own words, sulking and feeling sorry for himself.
Whitney is confident he can be that player, and is even more determined to show his new head coach that his message was received loud and clear.
“I’ve always been able to get guys the puck. It’s more about how I move the puck; I’ve always been able to do that, even with a bad foot. I don’t think anyone has ever described me, even when I was younger, as fast. It’s more about my conditioning and leg strength, and I was able to train all summer and I have my skating legs back. I want to reward Ralph for challenging me and reminding me that I can be a better player.”
With his renewed attitude and eight months of effective training, Whitney seems poised to return to being a difference-maker.
If he does, both he and Krueger deserve the credit.
You can listen to Gregor weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the TEAM 1260, and read him at oilersnation.com.
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