When the Maple Leafs visit the Blue Jackets on Friday night, it will mark an important milestone for forward Daniel Winnik.
The Anaheim Ducks, his most recent team, informed him in June they would not extend an offer to return. His year ended in the post-season as a healthy scratch, despite earning a season-high 30 points.
"It wasn't the offseason I thought it was going to be, that's for sure," Winnik recalls. "There were some stressful days there of not knowing what was going to happen for myself."
No stranger to adversity, Winnik has been fairly satisfied with his career accomplishments up to this point. He was drafted in the ninth round of the 2004 NHL Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes. A bit of an underdog, Winnik had to show a versatility to his game that would make him an asset for any team.
From team-to-team and role-to-role, Winnik now faces career game No. 500.
"It doesn't feel like 500 that's for sure," he said. "I'm sure when I was drafted a not lot of people thought I'd make 500."
Through nine games with the Leafs this season, Winnik found a fit. He's the leader of the team's penalty kill and he's shown an adaptability to his game when switching line mates. It's all good right now, but looking back on the summer, it wasn't a slam dunk that everything would work out.
"I shouldn't say it's harder to get jobs in free agency. But it seems like there are good amount of guys, only a couple get plucked and then teams are focussed on bringing younger guys," said Winnik, who thought he might have to follow the path of Mason Raymond, who made the Leafs last year after a training camp tryout. "I was preparing for that if that was the case that I had to go on a tryout somewhere. I just had to trust that I know I'm a good hockey player and that I'll land with a team. Knowing it was going to be a one year contract for wherever I was, I just put a focus on my training."
Winnik's experience is exactly what the Leafs needed when they signed him in late July. His penalty killing experience has allowed the team to rank in the top third in the league. With the next four games coming against Western Conference opponents (or ex-Western Conference opponent Columbus), he'll be an asset.
With the NHL getting younger and faster with every passing year, Winnik is holding his head high that he's reached a very important milestone in his career.
"It's nice that I landed here, a place that I'm happy," he said. "It's working out for me and I think it's even sweeter to get your 500th in a Leafs uniform."
Notes A shakeup of the lines didn't help Joffrey Lupul or Nazem Kadri get on the Tuesday's scoresheet, but chances are being generated, which is enough to keep some satisfied, for now.
"I've had more posts than I've probably had all last season already this year," Lupul said. "It's bound to turn at some point."
Lupul has gone five games without registering a point, and Kadri has gone six games without points.
Rielly's Stock Rising Morgan Rielly continues to perform well, avoiding what many refer to as the "sophomore jinx." Now his focus is on trying to help out in the offensive department.
"I had a talk with coaches recently about trying to get more pucks on net," Rielly said. "I think that's what I want to do and I'm capable of doing that. Last night I had some pretty good opportunities that I couldn't put in. Just have to keep putting them on net and trying to create your own luck."
Rielly left Wednesday's practice with an undisclosed issue that he stated was precautionary.