It was hard not to take notice of the Colorado Avalanche last season. With 52 wins, 112 points and winners of a tough Central Division, the Avs completed one the best turnaround seasons in NHL history and had many around the league looking at Colorado as a club that could compete for the Stanley Cup in the near future.
This sentiment of the Avalanche was not only a view shared by many members of the reporting media and fans, but also by other players around the NHL.
After posting nine goals and 18 points as a role player in Florida, forward Jesse Winchester was hoping to sign a new contract with the Panthers after his previous one-year deal expired at the end of last season. When no new contract appeared to be imminent, the Colgate University alum decided to keep his options open as the free-agency window was getting closer.
Nhl Career - 285 Games
Goals: 20 | Assists: 50 | Pts: 70
PIM: 159 | +/-: -10
The Avalanche reached out to Winchester during the league's new interview period before the start of free agency to see if he had any interest in possibly playing for Colorado, and it didn't take long for Winchester to give the team an answer.
"When they identified me as a player that would fit into their system, I told my agent that if they can do it then 100 percent agree to do it because I believe there is a real chance at winning, like really winning," Winchester said in an interview with ColoradoAvalanche.com before reporting to training camp. "That doesn’t come along every day and I’m committed to that, and I think the team is too.”
Winchester signed a two-year contract with Colorado soon after free agency began on July 1 and will bring added depth to the team's third and fourth lines this season.
That lack of depth in the Avalanche's bottom-six was a weakness executive vice president and general manager Joe Sakic noticed during the Avs' first-round playoff loss to the Minnesota Wild. It was an area the team addressed in the offseason, with Winchester being one of the main pieces brought in to try and fix it.
Winchester said he understands what his role will likely be with the Avalanche. He won't be counted on to score 20 goals and register 50 points in a season, but instead be solid defensively and contribute where he can.
"I think it’s pretty clear; being a good teammate, being the hardest working guy on the ice, bringing little things to help the team win," Winchester said. "They have their core set, which is unbelievably skilled, and I’m just a complement and going to use my skill set to hopefully help out in little ways every day.”
This will be the 30-year-old's first time playing for a team in the Western Conference as he's spent his entire career in the East with Florida and Ottawa.
Playing in a new conference and against a different style of hockey will be a new challenge for Winchester, but one he is looking forward to.
"I’m really excited to play in the West. It's heavy, heavy hockey, and it’ll be a good challenge," he said. "I’m just excited for the challenge and excited to play. Our team is so quick, so fast, so exciting to watch. Being in that environment day after day will be great.”
This past summer, Winchester met up with one of his new teammates, Avalanche veteran Matt Duchene, for a morning of fishing on the St. Lawrence River in Ontario, Canada. Both hockey players are avid fisherman, so one could guess what the conversations on water might have revolved around.
Duchene told Winchester about what the Avalanche were all about, and what to expect when he arrived in Denver. As Duchene kept talking, he said he could tell that Winchester was getting more and more excited about being an Av and possibly being a part of something special.
"When you have a guy that excited to come to a team that you’re on, that’s exciting too. It makes you appreciate even more where you are playing," Duchene said. "Being with a teammate like that, a new teammate that has that excitement, it makes you excited too for the year because you understand how we’re looked at by the rest of the league—as a team that’s a contender right now.
"At the end of the day, that’s all anybody ever wants as a pro. He’s going to be a big part of our team and he looks like he’s in great shape, and I think Avs fans are going to enjoy watching him."