When the Dallas Stars traded center Mike Ribeiro to the Washington Capitals on the eve of the 2012 NHL Draft there was an immediate worry that not only had the Stars traded away one of their top centers, but that the return was only a prospect and a draft pick. The prospect was Cody Eakin, a third round pick in 2009 who had developed into a rather impressive two-way center in the Capitals' system. The pick was the 54th overall in the 2012 draft, a pick that had changed hands three times already before given to the Stars.
That extra second round pick -- one of three the Stars would make that day -- allowed the team to go after another WHL player that had flown under the radar a bit, Mike Winther.
Mike Winther was a center who had made a big leap in his development in 2011-12, going from a 10-point season to 32 goals and 56 points in 71 games. Undersized at 5-11 and 175 pounds or so, Winther became known for his speed and skill that turned him into a budding sniper on a struggling Prince Albert Raiders team.
As a team that was in some need of skilled centers in the organization, Winther was an easy target. That he came from the WHL was an added bonus. The Stars have turned time and again to the WHL, with several top players in the team's system -- Jamie Benn, Tomas Vincour, Cody Eakin -- having come from the Western Hockey League in Canada. Considering the type of players the Stars value, the pick of another WHL player should be no surprise.
"In my mind, the biggest reason why the WHL continues to produce successful NHL players comes from the hard-working philosophy behind the league and it's players," says Cody Nikolet of WHL From Above. "Not many people would ever argue that the WHL produces more pure talent than the OHL or QMJHL, but it does produce hard-working and well-rounded players. It's really just an attitude that I think is present throughout Western Canada and it transfers well to hockey.
"You may not be the most skilled player in the world, but pro hockey has a spot for you if you skate hard, play physical and work your ass off day after day."
What's interesting about Winther is his level and type of skill, one that stands out in the blue-collar would of the WHL. Winther's speed is one that was mentioned time and again in the pre-draft scouting reports and a big reason those reports had the center near the top of their second round rankings.
"He's got some really solid attributes that make him a go-to prospect for the Stars," says Nikolet. "The first thing about his game would be his speed. He's got great wheels and is very fast out of the gate. To go along with that, he's got an excellent shot with a very good release. He's most effective when he uses his speed and shot at the same time and I've seen him score some great goals by blowing by defenders down the wing and firing on goal."
The first WHL game of the season I watched this year was between the Prince Albert Raiders and the Saskatoon Blades. I had purchased the game mostly to see Matej Stransky but I also wanted a look at Mike Winther -- a prospect that everyone seemed to fall over themselves about after the Stars made their selection.
Winther had been left off of our Top 20 prospects countdown, mostly because I'd never seen him play before and that I was concerned with his size; the Stars haven't had much luck lately with undersized prospects. After just 10 minutes, it was clear that I had made a major mistake.
It's true that the first thing that stands out about Winther is his speed. He's deft with the puck and can push the play up the ice in a hurry when it is on his stick. I didn't see many great passes in transition but he was able to effectively use that speed to put pressure on the defense through the neutral zone and create scoring chances off that rush.
On one play, Winther grabbed the puck along the near boards and faked out a defenseman before absolutely ripping a shot on net. The puck glanced off a teammate and in, crediting Winther with just an assist, but it was immediately clear this was a player with a NHL-caliber shot from anywhere on the ice.
What also stood out was Winther's play as a center. His skill set seems as if it would translate better to the wing, something Nikolet brought up as well.
"I've also seen him play both center and on the wing, but the Raiders seem convinced he's a center," says Nikolet. "Personally, I would like him more as a winger in the future because of his skillset, but him playing center is a good thing for now considering it helps him round out his game defensively."
One of the reasons Winther was a second round pick was the fact he had made such a tremendous jump from his first year in the WHL to the second. His size is also a factor, as Winther struggles at times with getting knocked off the puck. He's improved in that area, perhaps not by adding weight but learning to play with more attitude with what weight he does have.
"I think confidence was a big thing for Mike," says Nikolet, when asked about Winther's big jump his sophomore year. "He wasn't given a huge role for the Raiders in year one and was able to just slowly get comfortable with his game, the team and life in the WHL. He really got stronger as the year went on last season and the biggest reason for that was just growing confidence as he found things that worked for him on the ice."
Nikolet goes into the aforementioned issue; Winther's physicality.
"Another big reason for his sophomore success would have been the development of a physical edge," says Nikolet. "Early in his career he was knocked around quite a bit. Last season he was very aggressive, threw his weight around more and played with a chip on his shoulder. I used to think he was a bit soft, I definitely don't think that anymore. I've had the chance to watch him in a few fights and he holds his own. He's also a lefty while fighting, which has caught a few guys off guard. He's definitely stronger than his 170 pound weight would suggest."
Winther has one goal and five points in six games this season, missing a week or so with injury before returning this past week for Prince Albert. He's looked good overall, with the Raiders appearing to have improved as well. Winther has top six forward potential if he learns to use his size more and continues to add muscle and strength to his frame. He'll benefit from another year in the WHL before transitioning to the AHL for the Texas Stars, and it's likely he gets moved to the wing to better accommodate the needs of the system.
For now, he's another high potential and highly skilled prospect that will be fun to watch for the next few years.