Ray Whitney, the 41-year-old veteran whose career has spanned 1,308 games and eight NHL teams, seems likely to put another notch on his suitcase at this year’s trade deadline. With his scoring numbers down dramatically, the question is how much help he can be to a team trying to win the Stanley Cup.
It certainly hasn’t been an easy season for Whitney. TSN’s venerable Bob McKenzie mentioned Whitney’s name (along with that of defenceman Sergei Gonchar) in a recent edition of Insider Trading, and it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to understand the situation in Dallas:
Two names that you might hear out there are a couple of veterans from the Dallas Stars and maybe those players are actually hoping to hear their names in trade rumours: We're talking about veteran forward Ray Whitney and defenceman Sergei Gonchar. Neither of these two players, you could say, are thriving under Lindy Ruff in Dallas right now. It's not a great situation for either one of them. Now, if the Stars decide to move them, Whitney would be a pure rental and would be a lot easier to move, since somebody could pick him up for just the balance of the season.
Whitney’s ice time is down, his offensive production is down and the Dallas Stars are six points outside of a playoff spot. It would be an understandably frustrating situation for a player with very little time left in an exceptional career.
The funny thing is that there’s a solid case to be made that the demise of Whitney’s offensive game has been greatly exaggerated.
Point totals are relied on heavily from the most casual fan all the way up to the people making decisions in NHL offices, but they are actually an awfully rough guide to a player’s scoring.
For one thing, points don’t take into account ice time: A player who scores 1.50 points per hour and plays 10 minutes per game and one who scores 1.00 points per hour and plays 15 minutes per game will finish with the same number of raw points, despite the former being the far superior scorer. To form an accurate picture—particularly given Whitney’s decrease in ice time this year—it is important to look at scoring rates rather than scoring totals.
Another item that needs to be considered is shooting percentage. A shooter has a great deal of control over how many shots he fires on net, but given that even the best sniper fails a great deal more often than he succeeds, there is much less control over whether a shot beats a goalie. A player can keep taking shots and suffer through a nasty goal drought or author a career-best hot streak on the back of a solid shooting percentage.
What happens if we apply those two principles to Whitney’s five-on-five scoring?
The following chart shows Whitney’s shots and goals per hour in five-on-five situations over the last four seasons, courtesy of BehindtheNet.ca. It also shows his shooting percentage.
The chart shows one other item, too: “Adj. Goals/60.” That is the total number of goals per hour we would expect Whitney to produce if we were to multiply his average shooting percentage over this four-season span by his shot totals.
One of two conclusions is possible with regard to Whitney’s goal scoring, then. The first is that Whitney’s shooting percentage is non-random, that it's caused by a decline in his skills. The second is that last year’s 20.0 shooting percentage was an essentially random streak of a higher-than-average number of pucks beating the goalie, so this season’s 7.7 shooting percentage run is essentially a random cold streak.
The interpretation each individual reader makes will differ, but mine leans toward the second. We know (thanks to Arctic Ice Hockey’s Gabriel Desjardins) that shooting percentage declines with age, but the drop has been so dramatic that it seems reasonable to expect that Whitney will rebound a great deal as the year goes on.
What happens if we mix in assists? The following table shows two forms of five-on-five point-scoring rates: one being Whitney’s actual numbers and the second an adjusted point total based on the theory that Whitney’s shooting percentage is largely an aberration:
|Season||Goals/60||Adj. G/60||Assists/60||Points/60||Adj. Pts/60|
There are many other factors to look at: power-play scoring, overall game and situational statistics, to name three. But the chief question any contender is going to ask about Whitney is whether he can provide secondary scoring over a playoff run.
The answer to that question depends entirely on whether a team believes Whitney’s shooting percentage represents a massive decline in his true level of ability or whether he’s been snakebitten. Under the former belief, Whitney is not a good option. Under the latter, he’s essentially the same scorer he was over two of the last three seasons.
For those who subscribe to the latter theory (and I’m one of them), the idea of adding Whitney at the deadline becomes awfully appealing. He brings more than 1,300 NHL games and Stanley Cup-winning experience, he will be freshly charged coming off the Olympic break and it looks like despite a rough season, he can still add scoring punch.