As reported by Darren Dreger on Twitter and as presumed for a while now by the majority of the hockey world considering what looks like a mass exodus of free agent talent out of Phoenix at this point, 40-year-old left winger Ray Whitney will be testing the free agent market on Sunday. Despite his advanced age, Whitney is sure to receive a bevy of offers in light of the excellent season he just had with the Coyotes, finishing in the top 15 league-wide in assists, points and plus-minus. What some people may not realize, likely because Whitney has been toiling away in relative anonymity over the past seven seasons in both the desert and North Carolina, is that the Sharks' 1991 second round pick's terrific season wasn't out of the ordinary for him in the least. Since the lockout, Whitney has averaged 73 points per 82 games played, more than the likes of Rick Nash, Zach Parise, Claude Giroux, Corey Perry and Ales Hemsky have produced per 82 games over that span. When scouts talk about hockey IQ, there are few embodiments of the importance of that attribute better than Whitney. Despite being undersized and a mediocre skater, Whitney's unmatched smarts and decision-making with and without the puck have made him a standout defensive forward in addition to an offensive weapon as he seldom gives up at one end of the ice what he creates at the other.Although Whitney had the advantage of a favorable offensive-zone start rate this past season in Phoenix, he faced some very difficult competition as Dave Tippett ran his top line of Whitney, Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata power-versus-power against the league's best. Whitney obviously thrived, leading the team in both 5v5 points per 60 minutes and Relative Corsi. Now that it looks like Whitney's two-year stint with the 'Yotes is over, it might be instructive to examine the impact he had 5v5 on the teammates he most frequently shared the ice with, courtesy David Johnson's even-strength stats site:
Each of Whitney's four most common 5v5 forward linemates and each of the four defensemen he spent the most time with over his two years in Phoenix posted vastly better possession numbers with Whitney than when they were on the ice without him. The same goes for goal percentage numbers, with the exception of Morris which is honestly just another reminder of what a sad excuse for a hockey player he's become. While it's true that some of these players were seeing more difficult zone starts when they weren't playing with Whitney, they were also usually facing worse opposing forwards in their time without #13 given his high quality of competition in 10-11 and especially this past year.
Obviously Whitney isn't exactly bottom-six material, which is primarily where the holes in the Sharks' lineup are right now, but like Alexander Semin, he would fit in well on the left side with Logan Couture and Martin Havlat as part of the Sharks' second line. That would allow the coaching staff to move Ryane Clowe down to the third line, a significant improvement on that unit's previous iteration. With Couture and Havlat, Whitney could continue to receive protection in terms of starting position while likely facing lesser competition than that which he thoroughly outplayed last season. With Whitney and Havlat feeding him the puck at evens to go along with first-unit power play time, Couture could easily flirt with the 40-goal mark.
Whitney's agent will likely be fielding calls from nearly half the league on Sunday morning but I think San Jose might have a better shot at Whitney if they're interested in him (and there's at least reason to believe they were intent on pursuing him at the trade deadline before Phoenix rocketed back into the playoff race) than they would at your average free agent. Partly for the poetry of Whitney finishing his career in the city where it began and partly because the Sharks offer him a legitimate chance to win another Cup (although I'm sure other contenders will offer him contracts as well). Despite his remarkable consistency, I wouldn't want to offer Whitney anything beyond a two-year contract if I were Doug Wilson given his age and I'd push for a one-year deal, even if it requires an overpayment, due to the contract statuses of Clowe and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Adding Whitney at the right price would be huge as he'd give the Sharks much of what a guy like Semin brings but at a presumably much lower cap hit as well as with far more long-term roster flexibility.