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'Wildcat' Woywitka making the most of his opportunity

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

The casual Dallas Stars fan could be excused for wondering lately just who is that guy wearing number 44 out there? Is he a recent acquisition?

No, that’s defenseman Jeff Woywitka, who signed with Dallas as a free agent before the season started, but was a healthy scratch on a regular basis through the first two-thirds of the year. As the seventh defenseman on a club that usually dresses six each night, Woywitka suited up for just 20 of the first 57 games in 2009-10, but finally got another opportunity to display his abilities.

After raising his performance level a couple of notches lately, the 26-year-old native of Vermillion, Alberta has earned himself more ice time, skating in the last seven games in a row and 12 of the last 13, contributing significantly to the Stars’ defensive efforts.

“Just sticking with it, playing hard, playing smart, keeping it simple, moving my feet,” the 6-foot-2, 217-pound Woywitka said, noting the keys to his recent success. “I try and join the rush and create something whenever I have the chance to, while also being smart defensively.” 

“I think his game has been getting better as the season has gone on,” added Stars assistant coach Charlie Huddy, who works primarily with the defensemen. “He had a little rough go at the start missing some games, but the last little while, everything that he’s brought, just the puck-moving ability and obviously, the size factor and he’s a great skater. That was something that we needed and his defensive part of the game, I think, has picked up a lot, which is important. And credit to him, he hung in there when he was watching games and worked hard in practice and found his way into the lineup. He’s doing the right things now to stay in there.”

Partnered with sixth-year blueliner Trevor Daley on the club’s second pairing over the last several contests, Woywitka has looked impressive, logging 18:28 of ice time per game since he was last scratched on March 4, a significant increase from his overall season average of 14:30.  

“He’s played very well with Trevor Daley,” head coach Marc Crawford said. “He’s a guy that’s played hard and skated hard, and his size has been a pretty apparent factor.  He’s still got to always work at the read of his game - the read of when to pinch, when an opponent is vulnerable, when to stand up, and more importantly, when you’re outnumbered, how you bide time until you get help coming back to you - those things are big parts of reads, and it happens so quickly for defensemen, you have to make very instant reads and he’s improving in that area. It helps to have a guy that skates as well as his partner - sometimes that skating ability gets him out of trouble, and he’s a pretty good skater himself.”

“We complement each other pretty well, we both skate and we both get up into the play there,” Daley said. “When he’s going, I’m protecting, and when I’m going, he’s protecting.  It’s been working, we just got to keep striving forward.”

As he’s integrated himself deeper into the fabric of the club on and off the ice, Woywitka has also picked up a new nickname along the way, after some creative improvisation with the puck in the offensive zone: ‘Wildcat.’

“I don’t know, the boys started calling me that, I’m not really sure where it came from,” Woywitka said laughing. “I like it, it’s a good name, kind of like the wildcat offense in football, where you kind of make things happen. The boys love it, it keeps the guys in good spirits, I like it.”

“It was Mark Fistric that gave it to him, more to do with the fact that he is a guy that can skate, get up in the play, and he doesn’t have a great natural fear for doing it,” revealed Crawford. “It comes from the wildcat offense in football, which is unpredictable and is hard to defense against. It’s funny, the more that you play, the less that you show that element to your game, but it creeps in.”

Just the fact that Woywitka has been able to finally establish a place in the lineup for himself after yo-yoing in and out of the lineup for so long says a lot about his character. After spending the previous four years in St. Louis, bouncing up and down between the NHL club and their AHL minor league affiliate in Peoria, Woywitka opted to sign with the Stars looking for a fresh start. 

His prior experience helped him stay focused and ready earlier in the season while waiting for the opportunity to contribute on a regular basis.

“Just staying ready, that’s the main thing when you’re sitting out a few games there,” said Woywitka, who was Philadelphia’s first round selection (27th overall) in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. “It’s tough, just stay in it - it’s mentally hard, but you never know when you’re going to be called upon, so you got to be ready to help the team any way you can whenever you’re called upon.”

Getting into the lineup pretty much only when one of the other Dallas defensemen were injured, Woywitka endured a stretch where he was a healthy scratch for 31 out of 44 games between Oct. 31 and Feb. 4. 

His grace, work ethic and selfless attitude during that difficult stretch did not go unnoticed by his teammates and garnered him a ton of respect for how he handled himself.

“I think he’s done a great job,” noted third-year defender Nicklas Grossman. “He had a tough first half of his season. He came here and he didn’t play a lot, but you know, he’s a guy who just always stayed positive, always brought energy to the locker room, he gave it all in practices and was just a big part of our team even though he didn’t play. But he always came happy and with energy and brought everyone else along, and now, when he got the chance, he’s making the most of it.”

“He’s been playing very good,” added veteran blueliner Stephane Robidas. “It wasn’t an easy situation when you come in for one game and you’re out and don’t play for another month. It’s tough mentally and it’s tough to be game-ready, because even though you practice hard and everything, it’s hard to get the momentum going, but once he finally got his chance, he took advantage of it and he’s been playing really good. You got to give him credit, he stayed positive the whole time, never pouted or anything, kept the right attitude, working hard in practices, and you see the result now.”

It was a knee injury to Fistric just before the Olympic break that got Woywitka back into the defensive rotation after he’d sat out nine straight games. Fistric has since returned, and while Grossman also missed some time with a back ailment, Woywitka has remained in the lineup while others have been healthy scratches instead.

“He’s been full value for us,” Crawford said. “We’re getting him in more regularly and he’s displaced a few of our players and made it very difficult for us to take him out of the lineup.” 

“Obviously, it’s a healthy competition, there are seven of us capable of playing every night and all seven of us are capable of making a difference,” Daley said. “We just got to keep pushing forward.  We’re going to do whatever it takes to help the team win.”

Woywitka has certainly been doing his part in that area recently, attracting more attention from Stars fans in the process, and his teammates couldn’t be happier for him.  

“He’s just a nice guy, always positive, always happy, always smiling,” Robidas said. “He brings a really good attitude and that rubs off. He’s a really good teammate, and when you see guys like that get a chance and play like that, it’s always nice.”

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