When the Wild obtained veteran forward Daniel Winnik this month, it reunited coach Bruce Boudreau with someone who played big minutes for him with Anaheim a few years ago.
“I firmly believe we got the best free-agent tryout guy out there,” Boudreau said.
Winnik, 32, appreciated the kind words. But coming off the performance he had for Washington last season, the Toronto native never expected to be “a free-agent tryout guy” in the first place.
Long known for his consistency, versatility and penalty-killing prowess, the 6-2, 210-pound Winnik scored a career-high 12 goals for the Capitals last season.
“I thought it would have translated into a contract this summer, but that wasn’t the case,” Winnik said.
It’s been a head scratcher for Winnik, who theorized: “I think a lot of it probably has to do with [Washington’s] postseason failures as a team.”
For all their regular-season success the past decade, the Capitals haven’t reached the Eastern Conference finals since 1998. With Winnik on the team, they twice got bounced from the second round of the playoffs by Pittsburgh, which went on to win the Stanley Cup both times.
“I’ve always thought he was a good player, and I’ve seen a lot of him the last couple years,” said Matt Cullen, who played for Pittsburgh the past two years. “Smart player. Skates well. He’s been in a lot of big games. He understands the way he needs to play, especially a fourth-line role.”
Now, Winnik has landed with another team trying to get over the proverbial postseason hump. The Wild has made five consecutive trips to the playoffs without advancing past the second round.
Winnik has a strong chance to make the team, but the Wild needed to sign him to a contract that let them squeeze under the salary cap. Winnik opened camp on the fourth line with Cullen and Chris Stewart.
“Honestly I don’t think it’s any different than any other camp I’ve been in,” Winnik said. “Even when I’ve had contracts, I think the goal for other guys is always trying to take my job. I’ve been used to having to work and battle for my spot on the team.”
Winnik said he learned the nuances of penalty killing during his three years at the University of New Hampshire. He has continued honing that skill throughout his 10-year NHL career.
“I had Dave King [for an assistant coach] in Phoenix, and he had a great motto,” Winnik said. “Typically after two or three passes, if there’s not a shot, it’s going back to where the puck started from. So that’s a lot of the case on power plays.”
Earlier in his career, Winnik teamed with Stewart and newly acquired Wild defenseman Kyle Quincey when they were in Colorado. Winnik also brings experience from Phoenix, San Jose, Toronto and Pittsburgh.
But his experience playing for Boudreau in Anaheim is the biggest reason he landed in Minnesota. Winnik tallied 19 points in 48 games with the Ducks in 2012-13 and 30 in 79 games in 2013-14.
“I talked to Bruce, and I wanted to go somewhere where I was comfortable and get an opportunity to play a lot of minutes,” Winnik said. “I didn’t want to go somewhere on a tryout and play 12 minutes a game in the preseason.”
Boudreau knows there are several ways Winnick can help a team.
“I think we were in the top five in Anaheim [killing penalties] when he was there, and I think he was a mainstay with it,” Boudreau said. “He’s a smart hockey player. He’s not going to score you 30 [goals], but he does all the other stuff real well.”