Brad Winchester stumbled badly making the big step from the University of Wisconsin to the AHL at the start of last season, but it looks like the hulking forward is hitting his stride now. Winchester, the six-foot-five, 225-pound former Badgers captain drafted by the Edmonton Oilers 35th in 2000, put the finishing touches on a solid rookie camp at Millennium Place yesterday.
"It's a big jump and the game was moving too quickly for him," Oilers assistant GM Scott Howson said of Winchester's start to last season. "That happens to a lot of young players.
"You can lose your confidence. Slowly but surely he got his game together, he got some confidence and by the second half he was a very good player."
Winchester, 23, was a draft pick in the draft day trade that sent Roman Hamrlik to the New York Islanders for Eric Brewer and Josh Green. Oilers scouts wanted the kid badly in 2000.
He spent three more seasons at UW before turning pro with Toronto. Winchester struggled mightily in the first half, but was one of coach Geoff Ward's most consistent players in the last 30 games and finished with 13-6-19 in 65 games.
"After Christmas last year, Brad was outstanding," chief scout Kevin Prendergast said. "Geoff and his coaching staff did a great job of teaching him a lot of the little things.
"More than anything else, to use his size and reach to his advantage. That's what he's done . . . now, he can play in those tough areas and come out with the puck."
Winchester, who can line up on either wing, picked up where he left off last season the past three days. He skates very well for a big man. And, while Winchester doesn't have a huge offensive upside, he was better on his worst day at this camp than on his best day at main camp last September.
"There's ability there," Prendergast said. "Our scouting staff really liked him going into that draft. We didn't think he was going to be a first-rounder, but when the Islander deal was on the table, this was the other guy we wanted."
LET'S GO: Veteran tough-guy Rocky Thompson won't be in the lineup for tonight's rookie tilt with Calgary at Clare Drake Arena, but that probably won't stop the kids from getting after it.
Word is the Flames will have plenty of toughness in their lineup, including Thomas Bellemare, a forward from Drummondville who had 474 penalty minutes in 2002-03 and 181 last season.
Thompson, a former Flame, won't play, but Zach Stortini, Troy Bodie, Simon Ferguson, Roman Tesliuk and Brent Henley, assuming a stiff back doesn't keep him out, will. It could get rough.
AROUND THE RINK: Marc-Antoine Pouliot (flu) was back on the ice yesterday but won't play tonight ... the Oilers will resume contract talks with agents for Jason Smith and Radek Dvorak today and the team is closing in on a contract for forward J.J. Hunter, a deal that could be announced today.