April 20, 2009

USHL: Q&A with Steven Whitney

The split season, typically occurs when a player plays high school hockey then joins a USHL team some time in late February or early March, depending on how far their team went in their state tournament. It's a chance to keep playing hockey. It's a chance to play hockey at a level higher than what the player has probably played at in their career. It's a chance to get a head-start on the next season if the plan is to play in the USHL next season. It's a chance to improve your draft stock. Brian Lee, Tony Lucia, Carl Sneep, Jay Barriball, Patrick White, Jake Hansen, Travis Erstad, Taylor Matson, Nick Larson, and Cory Fienhage are all players from the previous four drafts who did the split season and went on to be selected in the NHL Entry Draft that same year. All of the above, except Travis Erstad, were Minnesota high school hockey players (Erstad was from Wisconsin). Some went on to play another season in the USHL, others went straight to college. Some have gone on to stardom, some are still trying to work it out.

In 2008-09, Minnesotans Berkley Scott (Tri-City) and Zach Palmquist (Waterloo) did the split season, and so did Wisconsin native/2010-eligible Aaron Harstad (Green Bay), but the biggest name to play a split season in the USHL this year was prep school star Steven Whitney. The Massachusetts native joined the Omaha Lancers from Lawrence Academy and made an immediate impact, scoring 4 goals and 10 assists in 12 games and compiling a plus-11 rating, which only helped the 2009 draft-eligible, 5-foot-7, 160-pound right-winger prove he can produce in a high-level league straight away.

McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey was able to talk with Steven Whitney a week before the end of the USHL regular season. Whitney discussed hockey in the USHL, his prep school career with Lawrence Academy, his successful stints with Team USA select teams, his commitment to Boston College, the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and a few players with Boston ties he respects, particularly a former BC Eagle who has made an impact in the NHL.

McKeen's: We're 10 games into your stint in the USHL, and I can re-state how I was going to state this, you're not just averaging a point per game, after tonight you've ensured you will finish the season at a point per game. So how's the transition been for you from prep school to the USHL and what have been the biggest adjustments?

Whitney: The biggest adjustments would be how fast the puck moves and how fast the guys are skating out there. Obviously, the defensive zone, the defense and offensive zone, everyone's a little better here than they are at prep school. You can't do anything on your own out here, you've got to get involved with your linemates and have good chemistry. It's more of a team game, I'd like to say, because if you don't have the whole team into it, your chances aren't that good to win. Whereas in prep school, if you have one line playing well that night, you can win. So, the biggest adjustment would just be every shift you have to go hard and you have to play well every shift.

McKeen's: What's your situation regarding still taking courses at Lawrence Academy? How are you guys working that out?

Whitney: Well, we pretty much had all of March off for break. So, I'll be back to schoolwork next week. My teachers gave me all my assignments before I left. I'm just going to have to send them back to them, weekly I guess, and just stay in touch with my teachers. I have all the assignments. It shouldn't be a problem.

McKeen's: Do you have a jump start on that at all or not so much?

Whitney: Thinking about starting this week, but I don't know.

McKeen's: What are your initial impressions of the United States Hockey League, and do you have any regrets that you didn't skate the whole year in the USHL, or not?

Whitney: Not really any regrets, because I had plenty of reasons to stay at Lawrence. But there were plenty of reasons to come out here as well. I don't really regret not coming out here all year. I think it's a great opportunity to come out here for the end of the season. Impressions of the league? I just think the skill level is higher than I expected. Everyone has skill and everyone can make plays out there.

McKeen's: Along the lines of having the opportunity to leave Lawrence, you were presented the opportunity to play for the National Developmental Program. When did they first become interested in you and then tell me about the decision to stay at Lawrence instead.

Whitney: Well, the Under-17 team offered me a spot. I turned them down because I just felt like Lawrence Academy would better prepare me for Boston College, going to school there next year. I just wanted to make sure that my schoolwork was all set before I went there. So, that was my first priority.

McKeen's: I also read you had unfinished business, so to speak, at Lawrence.

Whitney: Yep. Well, we never won the championship, prior to this year, we won the ISL (Independent School League) championships this year. So, that was awesome.

McKeen's: You were also drafted in the eleventh round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League by Rimouski. Did you ever consider making the jump to major juniors and why or why not?

Whitney: Not very seriously. I mean, I considered it. I obviously looked at my options, but I really wanted to go to college and play at college. So, I kind of crossed that off the list.

McKeen's: Right. I don't know of any Americans who have gone up there and then gone on to play Canadian college.

Whitney: Yeah.

McKeen's: Might not be any…

Whitney: I don't want to do that.

McKeen's: Back to Team USA, you've represented them a number of times on the select teams, both the U-17 Select Team and the U-18 Select Team. Going back to the start of that, you played at the Three Nations Tournament, as it was that year, as a 15-year-old. So, tell me about playing a year up and leading your team in scoring at that tournament.

Whitney: I think the players I was playing with made me a lot better. I kind of just went up there and give my all every shift and hoped for the best. I didn't really have any expectations going into that tournament.

McKeen's: How did you find out that you'd been selected, who told you, and what was your reaction?

Whitney: Well, they took, I think, eight kids, there were two USA teams, so they took eight kids from the '91 Festival that summer. I knew about it before the press, they told us before. I guess that Festival is kind of like a tryout for that team. I played well that summer in the Festival, so I was pretty excited when they told me that I'd be on a team.

McKeen's: You also played at the Five Nations Tournament in your U-17 year proper, I suppose we'll call it. In what ways was that tournament different from the Three Nations Tournament and how did you feel the Five Nations went for you?

Whitney: Well, it was different because, obviously, it was overseas, and there were a lot more European teams there. The style of hockey is obviously different than here. I kind of fit that style, I thought, pretty good. But, same thing, the players that I was playing with made me a lot better. It's a lot easier to play with good players. I think anyone would tell you that.

McKeen's: Then, also, you played for the U-18 Select Team at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament. Same question, in what ways is that tournament different and similar from the other two?

Whitney: I think each year the competition got a lot better. This past summer we got to play Canada and Russia. Each year, if you didn't get better that year, you'd drop off. So, I just tried to keep getting better.

McKeen's: You touched upon teammates helping you along the way, so during those three tournaments, who were some of your Team USA teammates that impressed you the most and why?

Whitney: Everybody had a lot of skill, so it's hard to choose who impressed. But, my first year, the goalie, Tyler Maxwell, we made it to the championship at the Under-17 tournament, and he was just the backbone to our team. He played unreal. So, he was probably the most impressive player, a goalie.

McKeen's: Hot goalies can take teams a long way. As it's well known, you had a pretty stand-out career at Lawrence Academy, led that team in scoring as early as your sophomore year, which is pretty impressive. So, what were some of the highlights of your prep career and what areas of your game developed the most in that time?

Whitney: When I was a freshman, I got to play a little with my older brother, Joe. I got hurt and was in and out the lineup that season. Then, as a sophomore, he was a senior, and we played together all year, and we just had great chemistry. Playing with him helped make me a better player. He gave me pointers and stuff like that. So, I think that year was probably my best development year. Then, this past year, winning the ISL, I think we had a very close team this past year, or this year. I think the leadership we had this year helped us win the ISL and make it to the prep playoffs, which we got knocked out of, which was too bad, but we made a good run.

McKeen's: What areas of your game developed the most in your four years of prep school?

Whitney: Freshman and sophomore year, speed. Coming from youth hockey, it's a lot faster. I learned that each level you go up, you've got to get faster. You've got to make quicker decisions and you obviously have to skate faster. Everything's just faster at the next level.

McKeen's: You've done pretty well for Team USA, you're doing very well here, so with prep hockey, did you find that challenged you and, if so, how and in what ways?

Whitney: Well, kind of, because (pauses), basically all four years, the line I played on had very good players. So, it was easy to play with them, but, I guess, the talent kind of drops off a little after maybe the first or second line. I don't know, I can't really complain about that. But, I'm pretty fortunate to have had the players I had on my line all four years. They were good players.

McKeen's: Talking with Drew Daniels a couple weeks ago, he played at Kent, and he made the same comment, that most teams will have one really good line, maybe a couple defensemen, but then after that, a lot of it is matching up, and if you can get your top line out against, maybe, their third line…

Whitney: You're pretty much squared away.

McKeen's: Yeah, away you go. What areas would you say are your strengths and what style of game would you say you play?

Whitney: I try to use my speed to the best of my ability. Decision making, I try to make good decisions, and just trying to make plays out there, keep it in the offensive zone.

McKeen's: Such as tonight, that worked pretty [darn] well. Then, on the other hand, what are the areas of your game that you foresee continuing to focus on during the summer and going forward and what's the plan of attack?

Whitney: Well, college is going to be a lot faster and more physical I think. So, basically I'm just going to work on getting stronger and faster for next year.

McKeen's: Are you working with any particular trainer or anything like that?

Whitney: I think I'm going to be working out at BC this summer.

McKeen's: Makes sense. Many schools do that with their incoming players. At what point did colleges start talking to you, or showing interest since there's a limit to when they can talk to you, and what schools recruited you, and what made you decide Boston College was the right place for you?

Whitney: I think it was maybe my sophomore year. My brother was committed to Boston College, and I got to play with him, so they got to see me. All the East schools would come to a lot of the games at prep school. It basically ended up between BC and UNH, and I chose BC, obviously, to play with my brother, hopefully, to be on his team again. And their style, I like their style of play. So, that was basically how I made my decision.

McKeen's: And you'll get to play in the Beanpot Tournament, which is probably pretty exciting for a Massachusetts kid such as yourself.

Whitney: Yeah.

McKeen's: Speaking of your brother, how are things going for Joe at BC? He had a pretty phenomenal freshman year skating with Nathan Gerbe, but production was down a little bit this year. So, how are things going for him?

Whitney: Pretty good, just trying to stay positive. They didn't make the tournament this year, but I think he jumped into college hockey right from the start last year. So, hopefully next year he'll get right back at it.

McKeen's: Now, obviously, the "knock" on you is size, which has some wondering if you'll be selected in the NHL Entry Draft this year. I mentioned Nathan Gerbe (5-foot-4, 165 pounds) in my last question, a fifth-round pick of the Sabres, so there is a chance. So, what's your impression of how much interest NHL teams have taken in you and where do you feel you might go in the draft?

Whitney: I really have no idea. I came out here, obviously, to get a little more exposure to show how I play against better players, in the USHL. I don't really have any expectations. Hopefully, I wish, hopefully I get drafted. But, I just try to work my hardest. I don't know. See what happens.

McKeen's: If I were a director of amateur scouting advising my GM on draft day, what are some reasons I should consider drafting Steven Whitney?

Whitney: I think I bring a lot of energy to the game. I can obviously make plays, I try to make plays. Speed, hopefully I'll keep getting faster. So, energy, speed, and playmaking.

McKeen's: I definitely agree with the playmaking. Going back to the beginning of your hockey journey, when did you first start playing and how did you get that start?

Whitney: I first started playing when I was about seven for the Boston Junior Eagles. My brother was in the organization. My dad got my older brother into it, and I got into it, and my little brother got into it. So, it was kind of a family deal.

McKeen's: When did your older brother start playing?

Whitney: Probably a little younger than me, but around the same age.

McKeen's: I know sometimes when one starts, the others start quickly thereafter…

Whitney: Right, right.

McKeen's: …which in your younger brother's case would have been pretty impossible (Younger brother, Tyler, was a freshman at Lawrence this year).

Whitney: Yeah.

McKeen's: I've seen a list of some of your favorite players, and some of it's not real surprising as a shorter player. So, who is the one small player that you look up to the most and why and then maybe who's your favorite non-small-stature player, and then maybe a favorite defenseman and a favorite goaltender?

Whitney: Okay. Ummm, if I'm going to pick a small player, Brian Gionta, because he went to BC, I got to watch him there, and just how he made the jump in the NHL, and he's been a go-to guy ever since he got there. Defenseman? Maybe [Zdeno] Chara, just because I get to watch him a lot. He's just a great leader out there and he can make plays and is very good. Basically the Bruins, because they did so well this year. Maybe a non-small-stature guy would be, we'll go with [Phil] Kessel, and Marc Savard. Marc Savard can make plays, Phil Kessel can score.

McKeen's: And Phil's overcome quite a bit already in his young career.

Whitney: It's pretty amazing what he did.

McKeen's: I guess Tim Thomas at goaltender?

Whitney: I can go with him, too. He's kind of got a wild style of goaltending, which is fun to watch I guess, some of the saves he makes. So, yeah.

McKeen's: It's a little more fun for Boston Bruins fans this year…

Whitney: Definitely.

McKeen's: … than in recent history, I guess. Lastly, I think I know the answer to this already, what was your favorite NHL team growing up and why and what was your favorite non-NHL team?

Whitney: Now it's probably the Bruins, but growing up I think it might have been the Red Wings.

McKeen's: Oh, good team. That's not who I expected.

Whitney: I think we had a couple Red Wings videos lying around the house that I could watch, so I kind of went to them. Non-NHL, college you mean?

McKeen's: Quite possibly, but could be a different level, too.

Whitney: College? Probably Boston College.

McKeen's: That works out well.

Whitney: Yeah, I just ended up going to a lot of their games, so I liked them.


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