We're going to highlight this breakdown of next season's likely defensemen personnel with a spotlight on a player. And it's probably not who you first thought it was...
He's a player who tied for 18th among defensemen in scoring last season (beating out names like Redden, Bouwmeester and Rozsival). He scored as many goals (12) as Sergei Gonchar.
And Penguins fans generally do not like him for his unwillingness to use his 6’4 frame to make any kind of physical contact.
He's Ryan Whitney, of course, and how he bounces back from an up-and-mainly-down year last season will be one of many critical factors for the 2008-09 Penguins. We all know about the tough love Michel Therrien gave Whitney by taking his defensive position away and shifting him temporarily to become a winger.
Whitney responded from that point, playing generally a little better. His real shining moment came at the crest of the Penguins season: the triple OT Game 5 thriller. Gonchar went down with a back injury (and supposedly a head full of concussion) and the Pens had to lean on all their defensemen but none more so than Whitney. He played 50:46 of ice-time, over 7 minutes more than the next closest Pen. Playing that much is one thing, but Whitney played it well, doing everything expected of him to keep the Pens into the game.
Obviously the regular season games don’t quite match the intensity or meaning of a do or die Stanley Cup final game, but Whitney’s shown he can be very, very effective.
With the re-signing of Mark Eaton—who was used as Gonchar’s first partner before Eaton got slew footed by Marco Sturm and tore his knee up—we thought of how the defensive units would look. No doubt Brooks Orpik played the finest hockey of his career when paired with the Sarge, but Free Candy needs to be effective away from #55. Whitney and Orpik have been partners before and have been teammates, more or less, since the spring of 2004. Both figure to be around for the next 5 years at least so creating a long-term duo that could be the modern day equivalent of Stevens/Niedermayer seems very appealing.
That leaves the logjam of veteran Darryl Sydor, the USS Hal Gill, shot-blocking (but vanilla) Rob Scuderi and the promising Kris Letang to fill two spots in the lineup. As long as Letang is a regular, we wouldn’t mind any combination of partners for him. Gill seemed to play the best and adds more size, toughness and is a better passer than the other candidates, so we’ll plug him in.
Spares: Scuderi, Sydor