Much of the discussion heading into free agency centered around "stop gap" options for the Dallas Stars, players the team could sign that would help the team in the short term while not hindering the future development of the young players in the organization. The thinking is that the Stars, in need of an offensive boost in the top six and lacking such options in the system -- at least in the short term -- could potentially target veteran players with short term contracts.
With a week of NHL Free Agency now in the books, it's clear that this was the exact plan for the Dallas Stars: Focus on the youth, sign veteran leaders still proven to be able to produce.
Ray Whitney, coming off a brilliant 77-point season in Phoenix, certainly fits that mold. A well-liked veteran player who is considered one of the better leaders in the NHL, Whitney has shown that even at his age he's more than capable of producing at high levels. He's averaged 67 points the past four seasons and hasn't played in less than 63 games since 2001. On paper, these stats and proven production would usually mean that a contract worth two years and $9 million is more than a bargain for the Stars.
There is one red flag, however, and one that is going to be the biggest article of debate about this signing until the Stars begin playing hockey again -- Ray Whitney is 40 years old and just signed a two-year contract. Despite his track record of proven production and health over the past ten years, and generally throughout his career, there is overwhelming concern so far over the fact that the Dallas Stars -- a team supposedly trying to build for the future and get younger -- made the first big splash in free agency by signing one of the older players on the market.
Aside from the debate about his age and his future health, Whitney represents flexibility and leadership on the top six for the Dallas Stars that helps this team in the short term -- and provides a good path for this team to the future.
The immediate question in the mind of every Stars fan when the signing was announced was just how durable a 40-year old winger can be and more importantly, how can a 40-year winger continue the high level of production he's enjoyed for most of his career. History tells us that when players hit the wall at the end of their career the drop off is sudden and steep when it happens, but Whitney has been extraordinarily steady in his production and health over the course of his career.
Even so, Whitney has had to immediately answer questions about his health and age and just how he has been able to maintain his level of play despite being the only remaining player from the 1991 draft.
"It's funny, people ask that question and I wonder what makes everybody think I shouldn't think that I can be productive at that age," Whitney answered when asked what his secret has been on staying healthy. "Just because you're at an age, doesn't mean you should decline. It's been frustrating for me to deal with for most of my career that I was too short to play the game, and now people question the age. There's nothing that says you can't play into your 40s."
Whitney has not played in less than 63 games in a season since 2000 and has averaged over 65 points a season the past four years. This is a track record that leads some to believe that Whitney is defying Father Time, fighting against the established tradition of players drastically falling off a production cliff when they reach this point late in their careers. Whitney, however, seems to not be slowing down much and he attributes it to how much the focus on health and fitness in the NHL has changed over the years.
"Obviously, if you take care of yourself physically and continue to train and continue to eat properly...you can continue playing as long as you want, "said Whitney. "Eventually, father time will catch up with you, I understand that, but I think with today's modern medicine and with the way players are being taken care of by doctors, there's nothing that says players can't play until 40 easily."
Joe Nieuwendyk was seemed outwardly pleased about having Whitney on the team, and did not seem overly concerned with giving the 40-year old a two-year contract. He cited the same track record stated above, saying that the consistency that Whitney brings to the Stars should not be overlooked.
"I'm really excited to have him," Nieuwendyk told the media soon after the signing was announced. "He's coming off a 77-point season and still one of the premier offensive players at that age. And with (Mike) Ribeiro going out, we were in need of replacing some of that production and some of that skill. I think he's the type of player that makes players around him better, so that bodes well for people like Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson and for our power play."
"No," Nieuwendyk then stated, when asked if there was trepidation at signing Whitney because of his age. "At some point there may be a dropoff, but if you look at the last five years, this guy always plays between 80 and 82 games and his numbers are pretty consistent between 65 and 75 points. He's a quality person, I know him, and he's going to fit in well in our locker room."
The locker room aspect of this signing cannot be overlooked, as it's clear that the Stars are focused on not just improving the team in the short term but also bringing in veteran leadership that is willing and able to guide and mold the young players on this roster. Unfortunately, this might not have been the case for the Stars veterans in the past when circumstances were certainly different -- but it is clear that this has been a focus of the Stars as well.
Whitney is a proven playmaking winger who, despite his size, has shown to be a handful for the opposition over the years. He's adept at using his size and speed to get around the larger players and create space for himself and his linemates and it's thought that he could be the perfect match for Derek Roy and Michael Ryder, two players known for being great finishers and shoot-first forwards.
What stood out the most about talking to Whitney was just how in touch he was with the NHL and the players around the league and just how much he already knew about his new team. This is a player that clearly can still produce at a high level in the NHL (he would have been the leading scorer for the Stars last season with 77 points) but it also more than willing to accept a mentoring role and in fact, relishes it.
If nothing else, Whitney made it clear that he's excited about the future of his new team.
"Obviously, Jamie Benn is going to be one of the top players in the league for years to come, and it's exciting to get the opportunity to see him up close and to play with him.," said Whitney. "I thought (Philip) Larsen made some big steps on defense, and with the acquisition of (Alex) Goligoski, and him being in the second year, I think he'll probably be more comfortable. It's a team that plays similar to Phoenix. It'll be fun. Michael Ryder had a great year and found his game. Loui Eriksson still is one of the most productive players consistently that there are in the league. And I've been studying the stats, and I know that the record was a heck of a lot better when we scored first than when we didn't score first. And again, that comes with a team that's very comfortable playing defense and having a good goaltender."
Sounds like Whitney has done his homework.