By MIKE ASHMORE
DENVER, CO. — Paul Stastny admits he didn’t know too much about Daniel Winnik before the 26 year old winger was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in the off-season. Stastny had played against Winnik numerous times while he was with the Coyotes, but says that his focus lies more on the collective group of five instead of just one individual player.
"So when you acquire somebody, you don’t know too much about them," Stastny told ECHL.com. "I think you really can understand what kind of player they are once you start playing with them."
So Paul, what do you think about Winnik now?
"He’s been great," Stastny said.
"He’s a good player with a long reach that can read the play very well. He’s had a good chemistry with (Ryan) O’Reilly and he does well on the penalty kill, he’s our top penalty killer. But at the same time, he can play on any line, whether he’s playing on one side of the wing or the other. When you’re a smart player like that and you can read the game, it’s easy to play with anyone."
Winnik’s road to play with and against some of the best players in the world has been a longer one than many players are accustomed to taking. He first appeared on the pro hockey map when he was drafted 265th overall in 2004 NHL Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes after his freshman season at the University of New Hampshire.
"It was exciting, but I was also a little disappointed with how late I went," Winnik recalls. "But I mean, it’s always nice to be drafted and be given a shot."
After his three-year collegiate career with the Wildcats had ended, Winnik signed an entry-level deal with the Coyotes in 2005-06 and played the final seven games of the season with their AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage. The following year was his first full professional season, which he’d primarily spent with the Rampage. But he also had a brief stint with the ECHL’s Phoenix RoadRunners as well.
"I spent the majority of the year in the AHL, I only had five games down there. The fifth was just to qualify for the playoffs," said Winnik, who tallied six assists in those five games.
"The coach was good, and gave me an opportunity to play, which helped me get my confidence back. When I went back up to the AHL, I played better. You learn a lot in the minors as a pro, with the grind of the game and everything like that."
But the assignment to the ECHL was tough to take for Winnik. Despite being just two steps away from the NHL, he says it felt like it was a much longer road than that.
"It was definitely pretty far away," he said. "You’ve got a lot of guys in the league who are maybe near the end of their careers and stuff like that. You still have a good amount of young guys, but not a lot of them might have even played in the AHL yet, so it seems far away."
But, as it turns out, Winnik’s NHL dreams were much closer to becoming a reality than he may have thought. Just one season later, Winnik made the Coyotes out of camp and hasn’t looked back since.
"I guess I surprised everyone in camp, but I knew coming in that I was ready to make the jump," Winnik said. "It was just a matter of getting an opportunity. Phoenix gave it to me at camp and I stepped up and made it. It all worked out."
Winnik made quite an impression early, scoring his first NHL goal in his first NHL game, a 3-2 win against the St. Louis Blues on October 4, 2007.
"It was a great thrill. It was a real easy goal, kind of a back door tap-in," he said.
"But the game itself was unbelievable. I knew at the end of camp, it was down to three of us (who could make the team), so when Wayne (Gretzky) told myself and Craig Weller that we were going to in the starting lineup for opening night, I couldn’t wait for the plane to land and tell my parents and stuff like that. The buildup to the game and obviously the game itself was unforgettable."
Before long, Winnik would become one of Gretzky’s top penalty killers.
But just getting the opportunity to have a relationship with the game’s greatest player was meaningful in itself.
"Wayne’s a great guy, awesome," Winnik said. "He’s a great people person and everything. He was good behind the bench for us. I learned a lot. You heard a lot of good stories from that coaching staff with Grant Fuhr, Ulf Samuelsson and Wayne himself. It was lots of fun."
After three seasons with the Coyotes, Winnik had established himself as a fan favorite in Glendale for his hard work and tenacity on the penalty kill. But that hard work didn’t go unnoticed around the league, either. This off-season, Winnik was dealt from Phoenix to the Avalanche for a fourth-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft.
"It was a big shock, but it was a very welcome surprise," Winnik said.
"After a couple weeks had passed, I got used to the idea of playing here and got real excited during the summer. I’m real happy it happened."
As the season’s progressed, Winnik’s become even more pleased with the deal, saying he has a more expanded role than what he had with the Coyotes.
"Phoenix, I was more in strictly a defensive role. But here, I’ve got some breathing room to make plays and not being afraid to make mistakes," he said. "Obviously, I’m still a PK guy, me and Ryan O’Reilly. I’ve got to be physical and be an energy guy as well."