© Herald photo by Perry Bergson
Prince Albert Raiders forward Mike Winther is hoping to bounce back after what he considers a subpar season last year.
Mike Winther is playing for a lot of things this year.
A pro contract. A roomful of guys he’s close to. And some personal redemption after an up and down season last year.
“I thought I had a good start to the season but after Christmas it didn’t go the way I planned it to be,” Winther admits. “It’s something I have to work on this year, to have a consistent year with a good start and keep it going until the end.”
The Trochu, Alta., product was picked sixth overall in the 2009 draft by the Raiders and made the team as a 16-year-old, posting nine goals and an assist in 61 games while picking up 18 penalty minutes and finishing -11.
In his draft year, Winther exploded for 32 goals and 24 assists on a last place team, prompting the Dallas Stars to pick him 54th overall in the 2012 draft.
He also played for Canada's U18 national team.
It had Winther hoping for big things last season, a frustrating campaign in which he scored 22 times and added 28 assists in 68 games.
A strange truth about many sports is that pure scorers can be streaky. Assistant coach Tim Leonard says he saw that with Winther.
“That happens sometimes and I think that happened to Mike last year,” Leonard said. “Then you start gripping the stick a little harder and start second-guessing yourself and maybe dishing pucks off when you should still be firing away. We always tell him that if you’re getting chances, be happy. When you’re not getting any, that’s when you have to look at yourself.”
An early injury didn’t help. He battled groin problems, a lingering issue that was hard to shake in the first half.
Winther didn’t score in September, had five in October, six in November, three in December, three in January, four in February and two in March, including the playoffs.
He only scored in back-to-back games twice, with goalless stretches of seven and eight games late in the season.
In contrast, in 2011-12 he had a six-game goal-scoring streak when he popped in nine goals and five instances where he scored in back-to-back games.
Winther knows what he has to do when the pucks stop going in.
“When you’re in a little bit of a slump, you can’t get frustrated,” Winther says. “You just have to keep your game simple and stick to the little details and the goals will go in from you.”
You couldn't fault Winther's effort.
The former centre, who now plays left wing, received as much abuse as any of the Raiders forwards as he camped out in front of the other team's net.
Dakota Conroy played with Winther at different points last season.
“He’s one of those guys who will put the puck in the net when given the opportunity,” Conroy said. “I always found that he was one of the guys who could find open ice really well. If he can find the open spot and guys like Leon (Draisaitl) and such can get the puck to him, he doesn’t make a mistake very often.”
Winther’s game is based on speed, with quick feet matched by a lightning fast shot release.
“It’s probably his speed that his gotten him to where he is right now and probably that’s going to get him to the pro ranks,” Leonard said. “The kid shoots the puck well, he reads the ice well and he’s a competitor.”
Winther spent the summer training in Red Deer, with the focus on strength, core and cardio and skating three times a week. He benefited from the absence of distractions that he faced after being drafted in 2012.
“It was a lot easier this summer being able to get the gym,” Winther says. “I wasn’t flying everywhere. It was good that way.”
Winther hasn’t signed with the Stars yet, another reason why he hopes to rebound this season. But he also wants to enjoy the experience.
He’s acutely aware of how quickly his WHL career is passing.
“It’s crazy,” Winther says. “It feels like yesterday that I was a 16-year-old and now I’m going into my 19-year-old year. It goes by fast but you have to cherish the moment and come to work every day.”
As a result, Winther says he hopes to take on more of a leadership role this season as he helps the club’s younger players find their way.
Winther likes what he sees around him in the club’s dressing room. After a season of highs and lows in 2012-13, he’s ready for the team to move forward.
“I think we just have to find that consistency that we didn’t have last year,” Winther says. “Everyone has to come to practice and to play every day. We can’t take anything for granted; we have to hold each other accountable and if you make a mistake you have to hold yourself accountable.”