With his Maple Leafs 26th in the league standings (14 points out of a playoff spot) and the 29-year-old forward having a big year, he’d been the subject of a lot of rumors.
The thing about trades is that while you may be expecting them, at the end of the day you still don’t know where you’re going to end up. You could go anywhere – to another team in the basement, or one higher up. So when Winnik found out he was going to a contender like Pittsburgh, he was thrilled.
“When (Leafs general manager) Dave Nonis called me and told me that he traded me, it was like he had a pause for dramatic effect,” Winnik said with a laugh. “It seemed like a while. I was just waiting for the team and it’s like ‘okay, what team?’ And then he said, ‘the Penguins,’ and I was really excited because I know I’ve got the chance to win the Stanley Cup.”
The Pens acquired Winnik from the Maple Leafs for forward Zach Sill, a 2015 fourth-round draft pick and a 2016 second-round draft pick.
“This was an important one for us,” Penguins general Jim Rutherford said. “He’s a guy that will fit in our top nine. He gives us more balance and more depth up front. Something we were looking for. He’s had a very good year, one of the best in his career. He’s a top penalty killer in this league.”
The Pens had been interested in Winnik for a while, something he was aware of. Rutherford said they began talking to Toronto about a month ago and tried to make a move on him a couple of weeks ago, but couldn’t bring the deal together then.
With the Pens so close to the cap, they had to get creative to make it work this time around – and part of that required the Leafs retaining half of Winnik’s salary in the deal.
“I would read the rumors and stuff,” Winnik said. “I think for me, it’s a little easier on my mind. I wasn’t sure if the interest had faded away after they had acquired (Maxim) Lapierre. I didn’t know where their interest level was at. So I’m happy it stayed there, that’s for sure.”
This isn’t the first time Winnik has been on the move at the deadline, as Colorado traded him to San Jose at this time back in 2012. Three years has made a tremendous difference for him mentally.
“This time is a much different experience from the first time I got traded,” he said. “I just kind of woke up the day of the deadline and saw I was No. 4 on the trade bait list, so I was like okay, I’m going to get moved. I had no indications; there were no rumors about me being moved or anything. So it was completely different. I don’t think I handled it as well being younger. … This was knowing I was going to be moved, and I think it’s been a little easier.”
Rutherford mentioned Winnik’s success this season, seven goals and 25 points in 58 games for Toronto. He led the team with a plus-15, which will also place first among Pittsburgh forwards and second overall on the club. That same maturity helping him deal with life off the ice is helping him on the ice as well.
“I think you learn things in this league the more you play in it,” Winnik said. “I think I’ve just come to understand what makes me more successful, so I don’t think I really understood those things when I was younger.”
Rutherford also mentioned Winnik’s penalty killing, which the forward said is his biggest asset. He’s currently averaging a staggering 3:27 shorthanded minutes per game, which ranks first among all NHL forwards, and takes pride in being able to handle such intense, high-pressure minutes.
“I’ve logged a lot of minutes on the penalty kill, so I look forward to helping that,” Winnik said. “There was a different approach here in Toronto for a bit where they actually just wanted me to stay out for the full two minutes against some power plays. When I played Pittsburgh, we had the 5-on-3 and I was out for the full two minutes. I’m fine handling it.”
To even-strength situations, Winnik brings versatility. He can play every position and slot in anywhere from the first to the fourth line if needed.
“I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve been in the league for eight years,” said Winnik, who was on a line with Nazem Kadri before the trade. “I’ve been able to play all those positions. I’m not labeled as just a left wing, can’t play anywhere else. It creates more opportunities for me in lineups. I actually like playing the right side; I find it easier (since) I’m a left-hand shot, so that’s something that’s nice.
“Then having played center all my life before I moved to Phoenix, that’s helped me be able to just jump back into a center role. And not only just with playing left, center or right – I can play on all four lines. It really doesn’t matter.”
Winnik’s also got a big body at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, and uses his size and skating to hunt down and be strong on pucks – which shows in his possession numbers.
“I’ve mainly been used in my career as a shutdown guy and mainly in a third-line role,” Winnik said. “I don’t know where I’ll fit in on the team but I’ll just look to add some secondary scoring, be physical and be fast on the puck.”
Before the trade, the Toronto native was in his first season with his hometown Maple Leafs. So while it will be difficult for Winnik to leave his family behind, he can’t wait to join a team that’s in the hunt for what every guy plays for.
“It’s bittersweet, you know? I really enjoyed my time in Toronto being a hometown kid and playing here and being close to my family and all that stuff,” he said. “So it sucks leaving, but the great part is is coming to a team like Pittsburgh and coming to a team that knows how to win and has done it in the past. And just to be able to play in the playoffs, all the things you want as a player that you play for all year long – now I’m getting the opportunity to do those things.”