Daniel Winnik is working his way into fantasy hockey conversations.
Overemphasizing the defensive side of the game and some “tough breaks” around the net that led to unsightly shooting percentages rendered the Anaheim Ducks forward undraftable in recent NHL seasons.
“I was in the habit of being so worried about being a solid defensive player that my mind wouldn’t be so focused on [scoring goals]. I changed my mindset [last] summer,” Winnik, who topped the Ducks with a 29.4 shooting percentage entering play Monday, said in a phone interview last week.
Winnik, 27, has been an instant hit in California, collecting seven points in seven games, including a team-best five goals after Anaheim signed the free agent to a two-year, $3.6-million US contract last July to bolster its depth and penalty killing.
'I knew we were getting a responsible player and a big-bodied guy. I thought we needed that kind of player on our team.'— Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau on Daniel Winnik
The Toronto native scored twice in a season-opening 7-3 win over Vancouver on Jan. 19 and two nights later added two more goals in Calgary to become the first player to start his Ducks tenure with back-to-back two-goal performances.
“When I heard [he signed] I immediately thought of a guy like [Dallas Stars centre] Vern Fiddler,” said Anaheim head coach Bruce Boudreau of Winnik, whom the Phoenix Coyotes drafted in the ninth round (265th overall) in 2004. “They’re defensive, good skaters, strong on the puck. You don’t think of them as goal-scorers.
“But I knew we were getting a responsible player and a big-bodied guy [six-foot-two, 213 pounds] that could play for us. I thought we needed that kind of player on our team."
Three of Winnik’s five goals this season have been the result of redirecting the puck into the net, a skill he worked at last off-season and throughout the recent NHL lockout after getting away from it for about 18 months.
Winnik credited one-time NHLer and former Coyotes goalie coach Grant Fuhr for working with him on how best to redirect pucks by taking away a goalie’s vision and positioning at the top of the crease.
“It’s rare that you’re left alone in front to tip [the puck]. A lot of the time you’re working in the corner and have to work your way back to the front of the net,” said Winnik, adding he is stronger and quicker getting to the net this season. “Sometimes you’re lunging for a tip so I try to work on those as well.”
Last season, Winnik endured a 43-game stretch without scoring, but more troubling at season’s end was his career shooting percentage of 5.9 after 622 shots, including a career-high 184 a year ago.
Boudreau, though, hasn’t been afraid to use Winnik in different situations, employing the two-way forward on the power play, penalty kill and for brief periods on the top line with top scorers Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
Winnik has taken advantage of the added responsibility, averaging a career-best 18 minutes six seconds of ice time this season, up from 13:40 in San Jose last year.
A matter of trust
“Probably the biggest thing about scoring goals is believing you can, and he’s got the confidence that he can score. I don’t think he believes he’s pigeon-holed into a checking forward,” said Boudreau, who played 141 NHL regular-season games over eight seasons in the 1970s and ‘80s. “Sometimes you play a guy a little bit more … and he takes like a duck to water and it gives him the confidence to play to the top level of his game.
“I know when I played, if the coach put trust in me, the one thing you want to do is put trust back in the coach. [Winnik] wants these minutes so he’ll continue to work his butt off and I’m going to use him in all different situations."
'Bruce lets guys play. ... He allows us to … trust our instincts, which is rare for an NHL coach.'— Daniel Winnik on Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau
Winnik’s strong start offensively also stems from the play of his linemates, centre Saku Koivu and left-winger Andrew Cogliano, a unit Boudreau put together on the first day of the Ducks’ six-day training camp.
Winnik and Cogliano are good friends and used to share the same agent, Anton Thun. They stayed close during college — Winnik at New Hampshire and Cogliano at the University of Michigan — trained together in the summers and now have developed chemistry on the ice.
“Bruce lets guys play. He doesn’t harp on us for not getting a puck in [the offensive] zone on one shift because he knows we’re going to get it the next time. He allows us to … trust our instincts, which is rare for an NHL coach,” said Winnik, who posted a career high 26 points in 2008 as a rookie in Phoenix and matched it three years later with Colorado.
Understanding how each other plays has brought instant success. The strong-skating Cogliano pushes the pace, Winnik said, and makes teams aware when he’s rushing up the ice.
“And Saku is just a crafty, smart guy,” he added. “His hockey sense and playingmaking skills are still great [at age 38]. How long he holds on to the puck opens up a lot of ice.”
And room for Winnik to find the back of the net on a consistent basis.