News | 9/20/2011 2:34:37 PM | Warren Kosel
| Derek Whitmore with the Portland Pirates
In just the first three seasons of his professional career, Derek Whitmore has accomplished more than he can ever possibly imagine. Despite never being drafted, a rare trait for a player of his caliber, the once collegiate standout has transcended into an up-and-coming-star with quite the Hollywood story.
From signing his first NHL contract to making his professional debut with his hometown team, Whitmore has assembled quite the name for himself, while establishing prominence within the American Hockey League. Not a bad start to a career, especially for someone who is still in the early stages of development.
And now the Rochester native can add his first National Hockey League game to his already reputable career, one that he was able to play in front of his closest friends and family. The experience, of course, was something he’s been waiting for his whole life.
“It was a great experience,” said Whitmore following his first NHL game, albeit a preseason exhibition contest that meant more to him than it did in the league standings. “I’ve been playing pro for three years now in the American league, but it was nice just to get a chance to skate with the NHL guys in a game-like situation in front of a really good crowd. It was an experience I’ll never forget.”
Whitmore’s calling came last night in Buffalo’s preseason opener against the Carolina Hurricanes, a 3-1 victory in which he received 11:39 of ice time on 15 shifts and played on the fourth line along with Cody McCormick and Corey Tropp. Though just registering one shot on goal, he nearly came close to scoring his first NHL tally on a great scoring chance late in the third period.
“I thought our line played pretty well and we generated a few quality scoring chances toward the end there,” said Whitmore on the play of his linemates. “Tropper (Tropp) is great down low at protecting the puck, and I tried to get open for him and he made a great pass to me in the slot. Unfortunately, I rushed the shot, but I think a few more days on the ice and more repetitions of plays like that and I’m putting that in the back of the net. I consider that a prime scoring chance I couldn’t finish on, but I’m confident it will be a much different outcome the next time I have a chance like that.”
The mere fact that Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff felt confident enough to insert Whitmore into the starting lineup for the first game speaks volumes of his work ethic in training camp and his character as a player. Considering the Sabres have only had three days of camp, and there are over 50 skaters fighting for a spot, who among them include Buffalo’s permanent NHLers, Whitmore appears to be in a prime spot on the Sabres’ depth chart.
“It’s great to be thrown in the mix right away and hopefully it shows the kind of player I am,” said Whitmore, who played the last three seasons with the AHL’s Portland Pirates. “We’ve had a great last few days at camp, the intensity level has been very high and everyone knows what they have to do from the ownership all the way down to us.”
A 27-goal scorer last season in Portland, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Whitmore is more than capable at finding the back of the net, but it’s adjusting to the NHL’s style of play that is of unfamiliar territory to the fourth-year pro. Having played the last three seasons in Buffalo’s minor league system, in order to compete at the highest level, Whitmore understands the need to acclimate himself to a much faster paced game where there is an increased presence of defense – something he’s not accustomed to in the AHL.
“The pace of the game is a lot quicker and the defensemen are much more skilled,” Whitmore said on the noticeable differences between North America’s top two professional hockey leagues. “As a forward, if you’re going on the forecheck and you don’t take the right angle or don’t chip the puck in the right spot, the D make good plays out of the zone and all of a sudden you’re on the backcheck.”
What made the experience even better is that he was able to share it with his immediate family, who made the 75-mile drive down the thruway to the First Niagara Center from his hometown of Greece. In a sense, it was one of the best “homecomings” he’s ever had, considering the magnitude of the game.
“Anytime you get to play in front of your friends and family is always a boost, but when it’s your first NHL game and they’re there to see it, it makes it just more special,” said Whitmore. “It was great to have them out there and hopefully I’ll have the chance to play a lot more games in this building in front of them. It’s one of those experiences where I’m glad to get my feet wet, learn from it and hopefully continue in the right direction.”