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Woywitka making the most of his opportunity on D

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Woywitka Highlights
For Jeff Woywitka, it was just a case of needing an opportunity to prove himself.

Seeing him get a rare chance to contribute on the Dallas Stars’ power play Saturday night, Woywitka, as he has done all year, came through as he scored his first goal in almost two years to cap off a 6-1 win over Atlanta.  

It was just one more piece of evidence that demonstrated just how far Woywitka, who has averaged just 20 seconds of power play time per game, has come in the past two-plus months.

The 27-year-old defenseman sat out as a healthy scratch for 16 of the Dallas Stars’ first 19 games before getting a chance to step into the lineup when fellow blueliner Mark Fistric suffered a lower body injury. 

Since that Nov. 24 game, Woywitka has impressed, skating in each of the Stars’ 27 games since, a span in which the club has fashioned a stellar 18-5-4 record and vaulted into the Pacific Division lead.

And although Fistric returned on Dec. 13, Woywitka has remained a fixture on the Dallas blue line, teaming up with Trevor Daley to form a formidable second pair, while others have been relegated to sitting out as healthy scratches instead.

“It’s been good getting an opportunity, the team’s playing well,” said Woywitka, who has also registered five assists and a solid + 7 plus/minus rating, while averaging 17:32 of ice time per game this season. “It’s good when you got a good bunch of guys around you that keep you coming to the rink smiling every day when you’re going through those tough times. It’s sometimes tough to stay with it, but that’s what I did and it’s what you got to do. You never know when your chance is going to come, so I’m thankful for it.”

“Since he’s gotten into the lineup, he’s been in and stayed in, where before he was kind of in and out, but he’s had a stretch where he’s been playing with Dales that’s been unreal,” noted Stars assistant coach Charlie Huddy, who primarily focuses on the defensemen. “Those guys, I think, have been really good. They’ve been great in their own end and they’ve created a lot in the offensive part. For whatever reason, the two of them have just meshed together and got a good pair going. Jeff’s a big, strong guy that can knock guys off the puck in our end, which he’s doing right now, and once he gets it, he’s able to make plays coming out of our end, so it’s just a real bonus for us, him stepping up and playing the way he has.”

The pairing was dynamic Saturday night, with Daley adding two goals to account for half of the club’s offensive output. On that late power play, with Daley seeking the hat trick, Woywitka received a nice pass from Brenden Morrow and fired a seeing-eye wrist shot that painted the upper corner of the net, notching his first goal as a Star and first since April 2009 when he suited up for the St. Louis Blues, a span of 69 NHL games.

“I just got it, a great pass by (Morrow) there, got the opening, had some time and made a good shot there,” a smiling Woywitka said, describing the play. “Dales was yelling for it there, I didn’t hear him. I was happy I scored, it’s fun, and it’s a good win for us.”

“I wanted him to score, I could care less about a hat trick,” Daley laughed when asked if Woywitka stepped in front of a pass intended for him. “The chemistry with me and (Woywitka) has been great. We enjoy playing with each other. I’m enjoying the pairing and it’s for me and him to run with it.”

There’s no question that the two have developed a special bond, as they seem to read off each other extremely well, complementing each other’s styles. Both smooth skating guys who can move the puck, each has the ability to generate offense. Daley in particular has really elevated his performance in that area lately, contributing six points (three goals, three assists) in the last seven games and a total of 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in the 27 games he’s been paired up with Woywitka, after collecting just five points (one goal, four assists) in the first 19 outings without him. 

Perhaps just having confidence in his partner, knowing Woywitka has his back and will cover for him, has allowed Daley to be a little more aggressive jumping into the offensive zone.

“I try to do that as much as I can, too, but he likes to do that,” the 6-foot-3, 227-pound Woywitka said of Daley’s tendency to join the rush. “That’s his game, he likes to get up there and join the attack, and we kind of read off one another. When he goes, I stay back, and when I go, he stays back. It’s been him most of the time lately, but that’s the way it is. That’s the kind of player he is and we have to read off one another and be smart. We’ll both get our chances if we stay patient.”

“He’s been great,” Daley said of Woywitka. “I’ve been fortunate enough to get a chance to play with him and having another puck-moving guy like him, it makes the game easy for me - him moving it helps my game out a lot. I think we’ve been going pretty well together, the both of us, and we just need to keep it going. I think we’ve developed a good relationship off the ice, too. It’s going pretty well and I’m excited about it.”

Woywitka has really enjoyed developing a close on-ice bond with Daley, noting that their considerable skill-sets help them avoid trouble. 

“I think it’s clicking because we can both recover if we do make a mistake,” said Woywitka, who is in his second year with the Stars after signing as a free agent in July 2009. “If we do get caught or something, because we’re both pretty decent enough skaters, we can get back and defend, too. It’s been fun playing with him. If we get trapped in our own end sometimes, we just find a way to skate it out and make the extra little play to get it out, and just lots of talk. I’ve learned a lot from him and we’re just coming to the rink and are happy every day, so I think that makes things a little easier, too.” 

The coaching staff has noticed how both Daley and Woywitka have helped each other raise their level of play, making the pair together better than the sum of their parts.

“He can skate well, he’s big and strong, his feet are good, he can get to pucks quick and he can close on guys quick, so he’s got all that part of his game,” Huddy, a former standout defenseman himself who won five Stanley Cups during his playing career, said of Woywitka. “He has a lot of confidence right now and I think we all know playing this game, a lot of it is confidence. When you get some confidence, you can play at a good pace and that’s what he’s doing right now.”

“I think Jeff, the smart thing about him, he focused on playing well in his own end, he focused on making first passes and being a reliable player, and now, we have way more confidence in him,” added head coach Marc Crawford. “Really, it does come down to trust.  If the coaches trust a player, then you’ll play them. And if you’re worried and you’re not sure that they’re going to help you in the defensive zone, then you never give them the opportunity to show you how much that they can help you. He’s put things in the right set of priorities and we’re really pleased with his play to this point.” 

Admittedly, Woywitka endured a difficult time early in the year sitting out so often, but he persevered and managed to keep a positive attitude.  Serving as the seventh defenseman on a team that usually dresses six on game day, Woywitka didn’t get much of an opportunity to contribute during those first 19 games, but he was determined to make sure he was prepared to play if needed.

“You’re staying ready, you’re trying to stay in game shape as much as you can,” Woywitka said regarding his mindset during that stretch. “It’s a little tougher because nothing compares to playing games. You can practice all you want, you can stay ready and do all the extra stuff, but until you play the games, you’re really not up to speed on all aspects of the timing of it, but you try to stay as ready as you can, because when you do come in, you don’t want to be that far behind where you’re losing confidence right way. You want to jump right in and keep it simple and then gain confidence from there.” 

“I think the one thing for him is he’s worked hard in practice,” Huddy said. “And I told him, for the situation that he was in, ‘When we go out and practice, those are kind of like your games - you’ve got to go out and stay at that high level and get the coaches noticing you, so if there is an injury or whatever the case may be, you get back in the lineup and you’re fresh and ready to go, and you’ve been practicing at that high level.’ It’s hard to practice and get into games, especially if you miss as many games as he did. The guys that have been playing all the time are that much ahead of you. You can’t get that game tempo in practice. 

“I give him full credit, he worked hard off the ice, making sure he was still in shape and when he was on the ice in practice, working at his game and keeping it at a good level, so that when he did get in, he knew it would be a chance to play and hopefully stay in the lineup.” 

Daley has certainly been impressed with his teammate’s persistence and ability to jump in when his chance finally came.

“He stayed pretty positive throughout the whole thing,” Daley said. “He was always a good team guy, and when the whole team wants him in the lineup, that’s something to say about the type of attitude he’s got. We all know he’s good enough to play and that he should be in the lineup.  He’s doing pretty well right now.”

Since then, as Woywitka has climbed the club’s depth chart on the blue line, other defensemen who were previously regulars in the lineup have ended up sitting in the press box instead.   Fistric has been a healthy scratch four times and Matt Niskanen sat out five games after Woywitka stepped in, and that trend will likely continue if and when everyone heals again.

Woywitka’s performance has certainly made believers out of Dallas management and the two biggest decision-makers couldn’t be happier with the impact he’s had on the Stars’ fortunes.

“He got his opportunity after about the first 20 games of the season,” Crawford said. “It’s a real compliment to Jeff Woywitka for being able to bide his time, stay positive, to work in the practices, to work off-ice to maintain his conditioning, and then when he did get his chance, he took advantage of the opportunity. What he’s done, he’s played a simpler game. He’s not heading up the ice recklessly, like he was probably apt to do a little more last year. And I think when players are trying to venture into the lineup, a lot of times, they’re trying to just do so much, but Jeff focused on being a reliable player.”

“Here’s a guy who we just had as a depth guy and your number seven defenseman, who has stepped up,” noted General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk in an interview on XM’s NHL Live! radio show last week. “And for whatever reason, sometimes these things just happen, he has terrific chemistry with Trevor Daley. Those guys enjoy playing with each other and they play very well together. He’s been solid for us for a couple of months now. He’s really solidified himself in that lineup and made for a lot of competition for other spots on our D crew, which in my mind, is a good thing. Having him come in and play the way that he has for us has been a big part of our success.”

And as he continues to prove his worthiness of belonging in the lineup every night, Woywitka is just trying to enjoy the ride.

“It’s good to be around a good bunch of guys here and the guys that want to come to work and are happy to play every day,” said Woywitka, who was Philadelphia’s first-round selection (27th overall) in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, although he never played for the Flyers. “It’s exciting right now and we’re playing well and that’s what makes hockey fun, winning games and having good guys around you.  It’s great.  I’ve had a good run here, the team’s been doing good. It’s good to play with a skilled team like this.”

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