Amidst a seesaw battle with Yale last weekend, Colorado College’s Scott Winkler sent Bulldog winger Anthony Day crumbling to the ice with a solid body check into the left corner boards at the World Arena. Instantaneously, Winkler set his sights on another Yale forward behind the Tigers net as he fiercely fought for possession of the puck in the defensive zone.
To some this would seem like just another ordinary play for a center listed at 6'3” who weighs in at 217 pounds. For Colorado College’s largest player and the Dallas Stars 2008 third round draft choice, however, this kind of physicality has not been common place over the last three seasons, nor has his career-high 10 goals this season.
So what has been the difference?
“I’m not sure actually,” Winkler said following Colorado College’s recent 4-4 tie with the University of New Hampshire. “It’s just kind of (me) getting older. I guess having more confidence and being put in leadership roles.”
“We had guys like Nick Dineen and Jaden Schwartz that are out of the lineup (this year),” he added. “I am not saying I’m as good as any of those guys, but it definitely gives you more chances when they’re not there. Someone has to fill those spots.”
Without Dineen or Schwartz, who is now playing for the Peoria Rivermen in the American Hockey League, Winkler has flourished as the Tigers second-line center behind offensive stalwart Rylan Schwartz, Jaden’s younger brother.
The Asker, Norway product is amidst a career year in his final season with Colorado College, already eclipsing his previous career-high of seven goals. Last year Winkler finished his junior campaign with seven goals and 17 assists.
Along with his 10 goals through 16 games this year, Winkler has added eight assists while averaging above five hits per game.
Yet it has not been Winkler’s offensive production that has been his biggest development this year, especially considering he is a former scoring champion of Norway’s U-18 league. Instead it has been his ability to give the Tigers a physical edge in both the offensive and defensive zones.
Winkler believes part of his increased physicality is from finally overcoming a variety of injuries, primarily to his wrist, that occurred during his first three years at CC.
“It’s a little bit of being stronger,” Winkler said. “I pretty much spent my whole summer here; me and (captain) William Rapuzzi worked a lot on the physical side of the game. That and being finally injury free now, I have been struggling with that the last couple of years. Now I’m fit.”
Colorado College coach Scott Owens said the off-season conditioning Winkler put himself through is showing dividends this season. Owens could see Winkler entered the year with a higher level of confidence than years past.
“He's got a lot of confidence right now,” Owens said. “He has definitely played more physical. He is playing great down low defensively and is down low supporting all the time.”
“Two of the three years he had a broken wrist or a cracked bone in his hand and he never really could get going,” added the 14-year Tigers head coach. “Before the injury he was playing pretty well. He is healthy and he feels good about himself right now.”
Rylan Schwartz has noticed this year that Winkler has found a knack for scoring around the net, something Winkler struggled with in years past.
“He’s a more well-developed player this year,” Schwartz said. “He is playing the body and making huge hits defensively; and he’s been scoring a lot of goals around the net, not just pretty ones where he was in the past.”
Winkler has become a crucial part of Colorado College’s power-play unit, serving as the Tiger’s roving forward on the man advantage. The senior is currently tied with Mike Boivin for the team lead with three power-play goals and is also one of the Tigers' best penalty killers.
"He competes and battles hard. You've actually grown accustomed to his solid consistent play,” Owens said. “His leadership is more by example by the minutes he plays and by the role he is playing for us. He has been able to utilize his size and his skating a bit.”
Winkler will be the first to admit his skating is not his best attribute on the ice. Playing on the Olympic sheet at the World Arena was one of the reasons he chose to play for Owens.
“That’s actually one of the reasons why I picked Colorado College,” Winkler said. “Skating was one of my aspects I really had to work on, but it has improved some. The Olympic sheet has helped a lot.”
But Winkler understands that to play consistently at the professional level next year he will have to become more of a grinder, despite his improved skating ability and a powerful slap shot that helped him score a power-play goal against Yale’s Jeff Malcolm.
“That’s the thing; you think you may be a skill player at this level but at the other level they are all skilled,” Winkler said. “So you’re going to have to find something else to help contribute to the team. I figured the physical part, seeing as I have a little bit of size on me, can help the team out.”
If all goes to plan, Winkler may one day make his NHL debut for the Stars and use his physical presence to help former Colorado College goalkeeper Richard Bachman earn a victory.
Until then, though, the center plans on cutting down on his turnovers at the collegiate level before they cost him a chance at reaching his NHL dreams.
“We keep stats here on turnovers and that’s something I want to cut down,” Winkler said. “It hurts you here, but it can hurt you even more at the pro level for sure.”
Follow Justin Felisko at Twitter via @jfelisko