Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Winchester given new lease on the ice

Blues' power forward has game geared in right direction since coaching change

ST. LOUIS -- When the Blues signed Brad Winchester to a free agent contract in the summer of 2008, not much fanfare was made of the deal. It wasn't one of those mega-deals seen in the league in recent years.

But the signing at the time made sense for the Blues, because they were getting the kind of player that fit their style -- a big, bruising body that's not afraid of making his presence known in the offensive zone who also widens the space on ice for his linemates.

After not making the squad in the season's outset, it was a wake-up call to say the least. The Blues sent a disappointed Winchester to their American Hockey League affiliate in Peoria to get his game in order.

But once Winchester got back to St. Louis, he never went back down. And when all was said and done, 13 of his 21 career goals were scored. He finished with a career-best 21 points.

Winchester was brought back this season under a one-year deal and once again under Andy Murray, the 6-foot-5, 231-pound Madison, Wisconsin product was having an unproductive season by his standards.

He had one goal and four assists in 33 games under Murray and was scratched from the lineup seven times.

But when the Blues changed coaches on Jan. 2, not only did it send a jolt throughout the organization, it also shook up some of the personnel in the locker room.

If a player has had a revival in a sense, it was Winchester. Even though he didn't play in Davis Payne's first game against Chicago, Winchester has made the necessary adjustments in the four games since. The last two games have certainly been his best.

After getting a goal and getting into a pair of scraps in a 4-3 win at Los Angeles Saturday, Winchester didn't register a point in Tuesday's 4-1 win over Columbus, but he made a difference where not many would see it.

Winchester led the team with seven hits and had two shots in 11 minutes, 28 seconds of ice time. He was engaging, he was hitting everything within sight, forechecking hard and using every ounce of that 231-pound frame to create space for linemates Patrik Berglund and David Perron.

A certain aura of confidence has been visible in Winchester's game, and Payne is rewarding him with important minutes he wasn't getting -- nor earning -- earlier this season.

"I think you look at that game in L.A. and I think you look at the Brad Winchester that's capable of playing solid minutes in lots of situations in this league," Payne said. "He's a big body when he's moving like that and playing physical like that. As strong as he is on the puck and the abilities to make plays in tight, I think he can be real effective for us."

Two goals and four assists through 37 games certainly isn't anything to write home about, but if Winchester continues to engage himself in battles like he has the previous two games, he'll certainly reap the benefits.

"I think our style of play is one of the go-mentality that's coming from structure," Winchester said. "That certainly fits the way I want to play.

"(But) it's more of a collective mindset as a team. We're getting everybody to buy into (the system) and good things are coming into fruition from that. It's all four lines and all six defensemen."

While Blues fans have been clamoring for a permanent reunion of "The Kid Line" with Berglund, Perron and T.J. Oshie, having Winchester with two-thirds of that trio is certainly helping Berglund and Perron persevere in the offensive zone with another big body out there.

"He's super physical," Perron said of Winchester. "I'm not sure there's too many defensemen that like to go in the corner with him when he's skating hard and going on the puck. I think for a big guy, he's very mobile and he has a really good shot. ... It's fun to play with him.

"I think we saw it the last road trip and (Tuesday) night, he's been really good. I think he's getting a new chance with the coach and it's good for him."

It was a season ago that the threesome of Perron, Berglund and Winchester were put together on a trip to the west coast in December that saw Winchester tally two goals in San Jose. It started a streak of five goals in seven games.

"We've played together a bit before, so there's familiarities there," Winchester said. "We compliment each other well. Perron and Bergy both have individual skill, and both Bergy and I have big bodies.

"We want to get in on the forecheck. That's key for our line, to get in on the forecheck and protect the puck. All three of us can do that. We have to be good at both ends but certainly create chances."

It may have been tough for Winchester to play with consistency under Murray, but at least in the early going, he's certainly finding his niche under his new coach, and Payne will rightfully reward him as long as he's persistent.

"He played with a lot of energy, two scraps in the L.A. game and played with a lot of emphasis and determination in directing his game towards their net (Tuesday)," Payne said. "Obviously, we've seen portions of that. We want to see that every game."

* NOTES -- Blues forward Andy McDonald practiced Wednesday and all systems appear headed towards a return to the lineup tonight when the Blues play host to the Minnesota Wild.

McDonald, who suffered a "mid-body" injury against the Kings Saturday, missed Tuesday's game against Columbus as a precaution. He skated on a line with Paul Kariya and T.J. Oshie Wednesday in the absence of David Backes, who got a day off along with defensemen Barret Jackman and Carlo Colaiacovo.

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