Despite the many talking heads who continue to suggest that Ian White is not a top-four defender anywhere other than Toronto, a growing number of personalities both in the blogs and the mainstream media are beginning to recognize his value as a hockey player as he continues Â to consistently provide outstanding effort at both ends of the rink.
Although much of the talk has centred around White’s play looking so good because of the lack of talent around him, and that on a deeper team he’d be buried, I say let’s spin that argument on its head. Â The fact that he doesn’t have a ton of talent around him is evidence of just how good a hockey player he is, dare I say one of the more underrated players in the entire league. Â Before you write me off completely as some fanboy lunatic for suggesting that, let’s take a look at the numbers first.
The first three years of Ian White’s career, while steady, were rather unremarkable and typical of a third-pairing defender. However, it is the past two years where he has emerged into a steady two-way defender capable of providing reliable top-four minutes (22+) on a game-to-game basis.
Last season, the Maple Leafs allowed more goals than any other team, and yet White was able to finish with a +6 rating, which is astounding considering he was second only to Pavel Kubina in ice time. Â Through 40 games this season, the Maple Leafs have again allowed the highest number of goals in the league, yet White sports a +9 rating while playing over 23 minutes per game (3rd on team in ice time).
Now, we all know +/- is a misleading stat; however, it is still a very good measure of a player’s 5-on-5 effectiveness when considered in the context of goals against and ice time. Â What that doesn’t factor in, however, is penalty-killing effectiveness, and this may be the one area where critics could find fault, as the PK unit in Toronto has been anything but effective.
But let’s take a look at that: Â first and foremost, the penalty-kill relies on four players and the goaltender to be effective, not just one. Â Secondly, White does not play the primary PK unit; rather Beauchemin, Finger, Gunnarsson and Komisarek have all averaged more minutes/game in shorthanded situations, as the bulk of White’s ice time is spent in 5-on-5 and PP situations. Â In other words, to suggest that White’s +/- is not indicative of his overall effectiveness due to that stat not reflecting PK woes is not entirely accurate.
On the offensive side, White’s 10 goals last season were good for 15th overall in the league for defensemen, and this season he is on track to shatter that personal best with 8 already at the midway point of the season.
And what of the intangibles? Â Last season, White started the year in the press box after an uninspiring training camp. Rather than complain, he took the situation as an opportunity to re-evaluate his game, working hard in practice to show the team he could fill any role necessary. Â When injuries struck, he seized his opportunity, filling in (very effectively) as a forward for a time, forcing the team to find ways to keep him in the lineup even after the injured players were eligible to return. Â And neither he, nor the team, has looked back since.
On-ice leadership is exemplified through effort, through a player’s willingness to never give up on a play, never give up on a game, and to step up his play when the game is on the line. Â In other words, what fans commonly refer to as “heart”. Perhaps the best example of White’s leadership, or heart, is the game against Pittsburgh last night. Â After the Penguins scored to tie the game late, the collective thought among Leafs fans was, “uh-oh, here we go again”. Â The team had given a great effort all game to stay ahead of the mighty Penguins, and the letdown after such a late goal to tie the game could have easily led to a Penguins’ victory, similar to when the Sabres forced overtime late last week. Â But this time, that didn’t happen. This time, Ian White stepped up and delivered where it counted most, Â to win the game for the Maple Leafs.
Look, none of this is to say that Ian White is – by any definition – an elite defender in this league. Â None of this is to say that he even a top-pairing player on any team. Â That’s not the argument.
Rather, the argument is that White has been overlooked as a key member of what you would call a team’s “core”: the supporting cast that can be relied upon to consistently keep their team in a game when the elite players are not on the ice. Â His value lies in his ability to play top-four minutes on a nightly basis, his ability to contribute in all game situations, the versatility which enables him to play forward in a pinch, his ability to take his game up a level when the team needs a player to step up, and his refusal to ever give up on a play. Â Whether he wears a letter or not, he has proven himself a leader for this team.
Bottom line: while he may not be what some would call a front-line, star-level player, Ian White exactly the sort of steady supporting player, and reliable contributer who is dependable in any game situation, that all coaches love to have on their squad. In short, Ian White is the sort of player who can be an important piece of the puzzle in not only the Maple Leafs’ rebuilding effort, but also their future success.
The Maple Leafs know they are fortunate to have him as a member of this team; hopefully you do, also.
Looking forward to your thoughts as always,