One for the Ages: Ray Whitney’s 2011-12 NHL Season

There is something to say for longevity. In professional sports, longevity typically means one thing more than any other – it means relevancy. A player needs to be good enough at his/her craft, willing to adapt and adjust over the years, keep healthy, and be relevant to their sport and to their team in order to compete for a considerable length of time. Winger Ray Whitney certainly possessed relevancy throughout his entire NHL career.There is something to say for longevity. In professional sports, longevity typically means one thing more than any other – it means relevancy. A player needs to be good enough at his/her craft, willing to adapt and adjust over the years, keep healthy, and be relevant to their sport and to their team in order to compete for a considerable length of time. Winger Ray Whitney certainly possessed relevancy throughout his entire NHL career.

The Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta native played 22 seasons in the league. He suited up for eight different NHL teams for a total of 1,330 regular season games. Whitney even won a Stanley Cup in his 14th season. He was relevant enough to have been around for 14 seasons prior to being a vital cog for a team achieving the pinnacle of NHL success – and then he went on to maintain that same relevance for another eight seasons after that.

And Whitney was talented enough to do it.

Ray Whitney #13 of the Phoenix Coyotes
Ray Whitney played 22 seasons in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup during the 14th season of his career (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images).

Primarily seeing play as a left winger, he was also capable of playing center or even the right side if needed. Whitney’s tremendous playmaking and passing abilities earned him the nickname of “The Wizard”. Never generating a 100-point season in his career, Whitney still managed to assemble seven seasons of at least 40 assists. The first of those 40-assists seasons came after his first eight campaigns in the NHL. By the time all was said and done, Whitney scored 1,064 career points. That was due to his longevity – and his relevancy – as opposed to any prolificacy.

22 seasons is a very long time to play in the NHL. Most hockey players never even come close to such a number. While Whitney lasted in the league longer than the vast majority of his contemporaries, there was one season – his 20th – when he gave a performance that exceeded most players, some half his age. Even at 39 years old, Whitney was good enough to earn the only individual accolade of his NHL career and was in consideration for numerous others. He also put a bit of icing onto his own cake too.

We look back now at Ray Whitney’ 2011-12 season with the Phoenix Coyotes. Leading the “Desert Dogs” on a very improbable playoff run, it became his one for the ages season.

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Breaking Into the League With the Sharks

When Whitney announced his retirement from hockey on Jan. 21, 2015, he did so as the sole remaining member of the inaugural 1991-92 San Jose Sharks. San Jose made him the first selection of the second round for the 1991 NHL Draft. Whitney had previously made a big name for himself during his junior career with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League (WHL). He led the entire WHL in scoring during the 1990-91 season when he scored a whopping 67 goals, 118 assists and 185 points in 72 games. Whitney ultimately led the Chiefs to that season’s Memorial Cup championship as well.

The Sharks took notice of his talents, and made sure that he was going to be a part of their expansion team’s future. Whitney would end up playing more NHL games than any other player selected in the 1991 Draft. It is somewhat shocking that he was not chosen until the second frame. Fortunately for San Jose, Whitney was still on the table after they used their opening round selection – and second pick overall – on winger Pat Falloon. Whitney and Falloon were teammates together with Spokane, and the Sharks hoped that combining the two together in San Jose would lead to a natural scoring dynamic. Unfortunately, it would not work out that way.

The expansion Sharks were a very interesting team. 45 different players would suit up in the teal uniforms during San Jose’s first season. The team’s captain – 34-year-old defenseman Doug Wilson – was one of the final helmetless players in NHL history. They also possessed a colorful collection of players including Brian Hayward, Craig Coxe, Jeff Odgers, Arturs Irbe, Brian Lawton, and the rather notorious defenseman Link Gaetz.

Whitney would spend the bulk of the season in the IHL playing for the Sharks’ minor affiliate, the San Diego Gulls. In 63 games to start his professional career, he scored 36 goals and 54 assists for 90 points. The Sharks would call Whitney up at the very end of the 1991-92 regular season. He would play his first two NHL games on Apr. 15, 1992 against the Calgary Flames and Apr. 16 against the Winnipeg Jets. Whitney would record points in both games and ended up with three assists in two games total.

San Jose Would Be a Slow Start for Whitney

The Sharks’ young prospect would play six seasons with the organization. Unfortunately though, these first six campaigns were not indicative of a player who would last a total of 16 more to follow. Whitney’s time with San Jose was limited due to injuries and stints in the minors to give a really slow start to his NHL career.

In 200 career games for the Sharks, he managed to score 121 points off of 48 goals and 73 assists. Certainly decent numbers for a player who was not yet 25 years old. However, the fullest season that Whitney ever played for the Sharks was 1993-94 when he played 61 games. Across the six seasons with San Jose, he averaged playing just slightly more than 33 games a season. Hard to surmise that he would eventually play over 1,300.

Whitney’s best offensive season with San Jose came in 1995-96. Appearing in 60 games, he wound up scoring 17 goals and 24 assists for 41 points that season. Also worth noting is that in this early portion of his career, two of Whitney’s San Jose teammates were the Russian greats Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov – both eventual Hockey Hall of Fame inductees. Both tremendous players that were capable of imparting tutelage to youngsters like Whitney and Falloon.

Numerous Stops Around the League

The Sharks and Whitney would ultimately pursue different paths. On Oct. 1, 1997 he signed with the Edmonton Oilers to start his seventh professional season. Whitney’s time with the team would last a mere nine games in which he scored a single goal and added three assists.

A little more than month after he had signed with Edmonton, the Florida Panthers came calling and claimed Whitney off of waivers. Whether it was the warmer weather or a fresh start, he simply exploded upon his arrival in South Florida. In 68 games Whitney would end up being the Panthers leading scorer for the 1997-98 season as he fired away for 32 goals, 29 assists and 61 points. He suddenly was generating the numbers which teams had long hoped he would.

From 1997-98 through 2003-04, Whitney would play for four different NHL teams – the Oilers, Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings. On five different occasions he eclipsed the 20-goal mark. In both 1997-98 and 1998-99 with Florida and then 2001-02 and 2002-03 with the Blue Jackets, he was his team’s leading scorer. Whitney would earn the only two All-Star Game appearances of his career in 2000 with the Panthers and 2003 with the Blue Jackets. He signed with the Red Wings as a free agent in July 2003 with aspirations of winning a Stanley Cup, but it never materialized.

However, it would not be much after this that his name would eventually end up inscribed upon Lord Stanley’s chalice.

An NHL lockout cancelled the 2004-05 season in its entirety. Following the cancelled season, Whitney would sign with the Carolina Hurricanes as a free agent on Aug. 7, 2005. Combining him with a slew of savvy veterans such Rod Brind’Amour, Doug Weight, Glen Wesley, and Bret Hedican, along with up-and-comers including Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Andrew Ladd, the 2005-06 Hurricanes would go on to win the Stanley Cup in seven games over the Edmonton Oilers.

Further rejuvenated upon achieving a childhood dream – he had been a former stick boy for the Oilers during their dynasty years in the 1980s – Whitney produced the best offensive seasons of his career from 2006-07 through 2011-12. After winning the Cup with the Hurricanes he remained with the team for four more seasons, before signing with the Coyotes on Jul. 1, 2010. Between those aforementioned seasons, Whitney scored totals of 143 goals and 270 assists for 413 points in 466 games. The top point total of Whitney’s career came in 2006-07 when he scored 32 goals and 51 assists for 83 points in 81 games.

A Veteran in the Valley of the Sun

Following four straight 20-goal seasons in Carolina, Whitney took up residence in the Valley of the Sun. 38 years old at the time that he signed with the Coyotes, he was still generating points and setting up goals. Whitney fit in with the Coyotes’ proclivity of assembling a particular type of roster. For much of the 2010s, Phoenix – eventually adjusting their team name to Arizona starting with the 2014-15 season – collected NHL cast-offs, raw prospects, and silver-haired veterans to be the bulk of their team. The recipe seemed to work. With head coach Dave Tippett at the helm from the 2009-10 season through 2016-17, he was able to get blood out of what many perceived to be a proverbial stone.

In eight seasons under Tippett’s leadership, the Coyotes posted a winning record five times. During Whitney’s first season with the team he finished third in team scoring with 17 goals, 40 assists and 57 points in 75 games. Combining his passing ability with 10 other Coyotes besides himself reaching double digits in goals that season, the assists added up for Whitney.

Tippett did the best that he could with the roster that was afforded to him. The Coyotes with Whitney were in many instances overachievers. They may not have been the most talented team in the league, but they were undoubtedly the hardest working. The 2011-12 season would see that culminate into the franchise’s greatest success since being in Arizona.

Let us take a closer look at the composition of the team aside from Whitney, as it is indeed interesting:

The Coyotes’ team captain was the beloved Shane Doan who was in his 16th of his 21 seasons with the franchise. Radim Vrbata was Phoenix’s sniper with 35 goals on the season. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson was in his sophomore season and his first full one in the NHL. Daymond Langkow, Michal Rozsival, Derek Morris and the bullet-shooting Adrian Aucoin were all well into their 30s. Anchoring the rise was the goaltending duo of Mike Smith and Jason Labarbera.

Add into the mix quality players like Taylor Pyatt, Keith Yandle, Lauri Korpikoski, and Raffi Torres to help round out the squad, and the Coyotes were in some ways a rag-tag group of upstarts that legitimately cared for each other and worked for one another.

Whitney’s 2011-12 NHL Season

On top of all that, you had Ray Whitney leading the team in scoring. Playing in all 82 regular season games, he scored 24 goals and led the team outright in assists with 53 and points with 77. The 53 helpers not only tied Whitney’s own career high, but were fourth most in the entire league that season.

Quietly but steadily, Whitney had also been working towards 1,000 career points. Posting some of the best numbers of his career, even as he was only months away from the age of 40, he would reach and surpass the pinnacle points plateau during the 2011-12 season as well.

Whitney helped the Coyotes to a record of 42-27-3-10. Such a record amounted to 97 points in the standings and won them the Pacific Division.

Because of this tremendous performance in the twilight of his career, Whitney came into close consideration for a number of NHL awards during this time. With the season coming to a close, he finished 15th in voting for the Lady Byng Trophy for his sportsmanship, 16th in consideration for the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player, and 12th in voting for the Selke Trophy as the top defensive-forward.

While none of those trophies would be bestowed upon him, Whitney would receive one significant honor that season. One that he earned outright and is forever marked in the annals of NHL history. Based upon his superb individual performance in leading the Coyotes, Whitney was named to the NHL’s Second All-Star Team. Only 12 players each season are named either a First or Second Team All-Star, and very few players ever receive the nod at all.

We take a look now at some of the finer moments from Whitney’s 2011-12 NHL season:

Oct. 15, 2011:

Whitney had his first multi-point game of season in only his fourth game. After three games on the road, the Coyotes had their home opener against the Winnipeg Jets. Whitney earned the primary assist on Langkow’s opening tally of the game, and the Coyotes would be up 3-1 by end of the second period. Whitney removed any potential of a Winnipeg-comeback when he scored a power play goal from Martin Hanzal and Doan at 6:43 of the third. The goal would be his second of the season, and the Coyotes would go on to take a decisive 4-1 victory.

Dustin Brown battles Ray Whitney
The Coyotes’ Ray Whitney (#13) and Boyd Gordon (#15) try to pinch the Kings’ Dustin Brown off of a loose puck ( Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE).

Oct. 27, 2011:

The Coyotes hosted New Jersey in the desert , and ended up firing 42 shots on Devils’ goalie Johan Hedberg. This would be Whitney’s only 2-goal game of the season as he would help lead Phoenix to a 5-3 victory. After the Coyotes Patrick O’Sullivan opened the scoring, New Jersey would score two straight to take a 2-1 lead. Whitney’s power play goal at 11:24 of the second period from Vrbata and Yandle would tie the game. The Coyotes would then score three straight – one from Torres, Hanzal and a second from Whitney – and would never look back. Whitney would also get the primary assist on Hanzal’s goal to have a 3-point night.

Nov. 29, 2011:

On the road in Chicago, Whitney would have another 3-point performance, against the Blackhawks this time. The Coyotes would cruise to a 4-1 victory as they scored four straight before the Blackhawks even got one. Whitney set up the first and third goals of the game – one from Langkow and one from Vrbata. He then beat Chicago goalie Corey Crawford to get Phoenix’s fourth, with assists from Hanzal and Vrbata. Whitney’s four shots on goal were the most for all Coyotes and tied for the most among both teams.

Dec. 20 and Dec. 21, 2011:

In less than 24-hours time Whitney would generate four points for the Coyotes. He would have a goal and an assist on Dec. 20 against the Florida Panthers, and then repeated the performance the next day against the Carolina Hurricanes. Both 2-point games would end up in victories for the Coyotes. Whitney was nearly a one-man show against the Panthers. He scored the first goal of the game on the power play when he beat Jose Theodore. Whitney then set up the game-winning goal from Vrbata as Phoenix won the game 2-1.

When they faced the Hurricanes the next day, Whitney was again the difference maker. The Coyotes only mustered 19 shots on goal, but they made them count. Whitney’s power play goal opened the scoring when he converted from Ekman-Larsson and Hanzal. The Hurricanes then stormed back to take a 3-1 lead. Cal O’Reilly and Rostislav Klesla scored to tie the game for Phoenix. Then Whitney and Morris combined to set up the game-winning score from Korpikoski. The Coyotes would take the 4-3 win.

Feb. 4, 6 and 7, 2012:

For three games in a row Whitney generated a pair of assists in each game. Subsequently, the Coyotes earned victories on Feb. 4, 6 and 7 against the San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars respectively. These particular games were also part of an 8-game point streak from Whitney. Against the Sharks, he would help spark a 5-3 victory. Whitney set up Phoenix’s third goal of the game which came from Hanzal, and then earned the primary assist on Vrbata’s empty-net insurance goal with one second left in the game. Two days later the Coyotes hosted the Red Wings at home and defeated them 3-1. After Boyd Gordon scored unassisted for the team’s first goal, Whitney set up Hanzal for both the game-winner and an empty-netter. The very next day the Coyotes found themselves on the road against the Stars. In a relatively simple 4-1 victory for Phoenix, Whitney again fed Vrbata for the game-winning tally in the second period. Then he and Vrbata combined to set up Morris for the fourth goal of the game.

Mar. 14, 2012:

Whitney would put forth a 3-assist night for Phoenix as the team earned a hard fought 5-4 victory over the Vancouver Canucks. Vancouver actually out-shot the Coyotes 43 to 33. Alexandre Burrows and Ryan Kesler put the Canucks up 2-0. That is when Whitney went into action. He helped generate three Coyotes’ goals in a row – earning the secondary assist on tallies from Klesla, Doan and Ekman-Larsson. The two teams would trade goals the rest of the way, but it was Phoenix’s power play score from Antoine Vermette in the third which would hold up to be the decisive mark. The three assists were Whitney’s 42nd, 43rd and 44th of the season.

Ray Whitney finished his NHL career having scored 1,064 points during the regular season. His 1,000th point came as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes (Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE).

Mar. 31, 2012:

This was an extra-special night for Whitney. Not only would the Coyotes earn a 4-0 victory over the Anaheim Ducks, but he would join a select club that only 78 players before him had ever been a part of. With the Coyotes already on the power play from Anaheim’s Corey Perry getting an instigator penalty from a fight with Phoenix’s Gilbert Brule, the “Desert Dogs” had the puck hemmed in the Ducks’ end.

Whitney had moved back to the point where he could better orchestrate play, and Vrbata positioned himself to the right of goalie Jeff Deslauriers. The two Coyotes exchanged a bit of a give-and-go. Vrbata saucered a pass, skimming the ice from the side of the Ducks’ net to Whitney at the opposite point. Immediately after receiving the puck, Whitney put a hard pass straight back to Vrbata. The Czech winger one-timed the pass to cleanly beat Deslauriers. With Whitney picking up the primary assist on the goal, it would be the 1,000th point of his NHL career. Vrbata scooped the puck out of the net as an obvious keepsake for Whitney.

An exclamation point was added when the Coyotes fourth and final goal of the game was scored by Whitney himself late in the third period to up him to 1,001 points.

The Playoff Success of the Coyotes

The 2011-12 Coyotes would turn the NHL on its ear by shockingly making it all the way to the Stanley Cup semi-finals. This still marks the only time in the team’s history since they have played in the state of Arizona that they made it beyond the first round.

Phoenix would eliminate the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round by defeating them in six games. A rather staggering five of the six games went to overtime in the series – all but the decisive Game Six which the Coyotes won 4-0. They would move onto the second round where they faced the Nashville Predators. The Coyotes would make relatively short work of them, winning the series in five games. Whitney scored the overtime game-winning goal in Game One of the series against Nashville.

It would not be until the semis where they faced the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings that Phoenix would finally be halted. The Kings took a 3-0 lead in the series, and although the Coyotes won Game Four and forced overtime in Game Five, they would eventually be eliminated when L.A.’s Dustin Penner scored the series-winner in OT.

Antoine Vermette – a trade deadline acquisition for Phoenix – was the team’s only player to score double digits in points during the playoffs. Meanwhile, Smith manned the nets for each of the team’s postseason contests. Whitney played in all 16 of the Coyotes playoff games. He ended up scoring a pair of goals and five assists. It would be the third and final time that he would play in a Stanley Cup semi-final.

Wrapping up His Career

Ray Whitney, Dallas Stars
Ray Whitney finished his NHL career with the Dallas Stars for two seasons (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports).

Ray Whitney would play two more seasons in the NHL after his All-Star season with the Coyotes. On Jul. 1, 2012 he would sign as a free agent with the Dallas Stars – a two-year deal worth $9 million. Quite the lucrative contract for a hockey player who had just turned 40 years old.

An NHL lockout abbreviated the 2012-13 season to just 48 games. Whitney’s was even shorter at just 32 games due to injury. Still, he scored at nearly a point-per-game pace as he generated 29 points off of 11 goals and 18 assists. Those 29 points tied him for second in Stars scoring with Loui Eriksson who had played the full 48 contests.

In what would be his final NHL season, Whitney’s numbers dropped to a modest nine goals and 23 assists for 32 points in 69 games in 2013-14. He would play in five of Dallas’ six playoff games in what would be the final postseason play of his career.

While it is unlikely that Ray Whitney will end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, he still checked off a number of the right boxes. A Stanley Cup and over 1,000 career points, namely. Whitney’s 1,064 points were comprised from 385 goals and 679 assists – both above-average numbers of their own.

Throwing his one for the ages season into the mix – when as a 39 year old he showed he could still be an All-Star caliber hockey player – and one could make a fairly decent argument for induction.

Above all else, Ray Whitney has relevancy in his corner and that speaks volumes.

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