A change in scenery has made Daniel Winnik feel like a fresh-faced rookie again.
After spending the first three seasons of his NHL career with the Phoenix Coyotes, Winnik was acquired by the Avalanche this past summer and has been a welcome addition to the club, both on the ice and in the locker room.
In fact, Winnik claims that he’s now enjoying the game more than he has since his rookie campaign of 2007-08.
“It feels like my first year again, where I was having lots of fun,” said Winnik. “Not that I wasn’t having fun last year, but I’m playing a little looser and not worrying about a lot of little things. It’s more stress-free.”
Taking a more relaxed approach to the game – in terms of not overthinking every little play and each decision he makes – has proven to be a valuable step for Winnik. Primarily utilized on the fourth line and in penalty-killing situations with the Coyotes, he has earned the trust of Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco to the point where he’s gaining more five-on-five opportunities.
“I think the difference is that Joe has thrown us out there a good amount so far in both offensive and defensive situations,” said Winnik. “It’s better when you’re relied on a little more offensively than just playing straight defense.”
The results speak for themselves. Twelve games into the 2010-11 campaign, Winnik has scored four goals, matching his total from 74 games in 2009-10, while also adding a pair of assists and providing both a stabilizing defensive presence and a strong bearing along the boards.
When talking about his own offensive production, Winnik praises his linemates Ryan O’Reilly and Brandon Yip. He openly discusses his chemistry with O’Reilly and the goal-scoring aspect that Yip brings to the trio.
In turn, O’Reilly and Yip are just as complementary when asked about their new teammate. Specifically, Yip is impressed with how Winnik thrives during battles in the corners and how efficiently he uses his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame to shield off defenders.
“He’s one of the best out here when it comes to protecting the puck,” said Yip. “It’s hard to even get near him when he has it in the corners. It’s great to have him on my line. He possesses the puck well and I just try and get open for him. We try to make plays off each other that way.”
Although Winnik may not possess the natural offensive prowess of some of the league’s top goal scorers, what he does provide is a rare blend of physicality and the ability to put the puck into the net. He’s certainly not afraid to go into the tough areas to handle the latter part of that equation, as he’s shown repeatedly this season.
“I think it’s the opportunity and hanging around the net a little more, not worrying about being the first guy back on defense,” said Winnik. “I had the tendency the last couple years of worrying about being more on the defensive side than the offensive side.”
As for O’Reilly, Winnik not only takes a regular shift on the same line and shares top-pair penalty-killing responsibilities with him, but the duo also spends plenty of time together off the ice.
“With Ryan, it’s awesome. We’re roommates on the road so that helps because we talk about a lot of stuff,” said Winnik. “Being PK guys together creates a lot of chemistry. We’re on the ice together probably 90 percent of the time whenever we play.”
O’Reilly, the 19-year-old center, says that Winnik has acted as an on-ice leader for many of the younger players on the Avs, even though the Toronto native is just 25 years old himself.
“He’s been a great addition for us. He works hard and he’s a great voice,” said O’Reilly. “I’ve gotten to know him really well and he’s really smart and a good guy to be around. He’s helped me personally on the PK, just by sharing his thoughts.”
Whether he’s scoring a timely goal, providing a steady hand in all three zones or serving as a mentor, the early returns on Winnik’s first season in Colorado have been nothing but positive.
A happy athlete is often a productive athlete, and now that he’s enjoying the game more than he has since his rookie year – when he set career highs in games (79), goals (11), assists (15) and points (26) – that could mean good news for the Avs and bad news for the rest of the league.