Penguins have their own Mt. Whitney as pillar of defense
Ryan Whitney, center, celebrates with Colby Armstrong, right, after Armstrong scored the winning goal against the Rangers last season. Whitney, with 59 points, was on the ice for a lot of big moments in the Penguins' 105-point season.
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WEST POINT, N.Y. -- When the Penguins were split into two groups for a training-camp drill last week, the side that came up short had to do pushups. Defenseman Ryan Whitney, who was in the group spared the exercises, skated slowly past those kissing the ice, chiding them.
"Come on, Gary Roberts," Whitney called out. "Twenty pushups is nothing for you."
Roberts has a nearly freakish dedication to working out. He's also one of the toughest players on the team and not someone a lot of people would choose to antagonize.
Whitney has a repertoire of yaps, and he seems to be calling on it more this fall.
"I probably do a little too much of giving guys crap," Whitney said with a grin yesterday at Tate Rink, where the Penguins are practicing while they undergo several team-building exercises and activities at the United States Military Academy.
It wasn't so much a mea culpa as it was a my prerogative.
He's not so much cocky as he is comfortable.
And while he often is funny, there is a message woven into his needling sometimes.
"That's a confidence thing," said veteran winger Mark Recchi, who has watched many good, young players come into their own. "His first two years he came and played and learned. Now he understands he's one of our top guys back there. He's important, and it's time for him to accept a leadership role."
Whitney, 24, has some good reasons for that comfort level. After being the fifth overall pick in the 2002 draft, the 6-foot-4, 219-pound Whitney broke into the NHL in 2005-06, playing 68 games with the Penguins. He had 14 goals, 59 points in 2006-07, his first full season in the NHL, to finish in a tie for sixth in scoring among defensemen.
In July, he was rewarded with a six-year, $24 million contract.
"He's comfortable and more confident because of the season he had last year," said Penguins assistant coach Andre Savard, who works with the defensemen. "He's a very gifted player. He skates well, he's got the size, passes the puck well and has great vision."
Whitney said it helps that he is surrounded mostly by familiar players.
"You get to your third year, you've gotten to know pretty much everyone," he said. "Most of us have been together for a long time, some of us going back to Wilkes-Barre."
Last season, Whitney became entrenched on one point of the power play, opposite Sergei Gonchar.
He credits that as a big reason he was able to generate a lot of points -- nine of his 14 goals and 24 of his 45 assists came on the power play -- although he said he also benefits from the team's talented forwards regardless of the game situation.
"You move the puck up to these forwards, you're bound to get the assists," he said. "That's what I've got to keep working on, that first pass."
The coaches also have asked him to work on some aspects of his defensive play, specifically his one-on-one play in the defensive zone and his work against the rush.
That's OK with Whitney, whose plus-minus rating of plus-9 last season was best among Penguins defensemen except for lightly-used Alain Nasreddine.
"First and foremost, they tell me I'm a defenseman, so defense first," he said.
Whitney also would like to get through this season with a little less pain.
He played last season with a sore wrist that required offseason surgery and feet that ached from the 118 shots he blocked.
He didn't complain about his various aches and pains last season, but that doesn't mean he stayed quiet. He was reminded more than once by a few older teammates that he should keep his mouth shut.
"I'm sure once in a while I was probably talking too much last year," Whitney said. "You've got to learn stuff the hard way sometimes."
NOTES -- Captain Sidney Crosby left practice early for the second day in a row and skipped an early morning climb with the team as a precaution because of groin soreness. "It's not as bad as it was [Monday]," he said. ... Winger Georges Laraque sat out practice because of a sore hip flexor. ... Roberts sat out practice because of illness.
First Published September 26, 2007 12:00 am