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Toronto Maple Leafs winger Dan Winnik, centre, says his transition into coach Mike Babcock’s heavily structured system has been easy.Peter Llewellyn

On the first goal, Dan Winnik went barrelling in on the defenceman on the forecheck, rapped the puck with his stick and suddenly a teammate was in alone on the goalie.

On the fourth one, Winnik was in on a breakaway, and he carefully went to his backhand, outwaited the goalie and scored his 59th career goal.

It was some much needed offence for the Toronto Maple Leafs from an unlikely source, as they stormed back to tie Ottawa in what became a shootout loss on the weekend.

It was the kind of performance head coach Mike Babcock wants his young players to see and emulate.

It's why Dan Winnik is in Toronto.

"He's a hard-working guy," said linemate Nick Spaling, who played with Winnik in Pittsburgh at the end of last season when the Leafs moved him there for two draft picks. "That's his biggest thing. He's smart. He understands the game. He just knows where to be and does the right things."

Three games into the season, Winnik and Spaling have formed the kind of checking duo that Babcock is going to look to create every season in Toronto.

They start the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone. They face the opposition's top lines. Once in a while, ideally, they chip in on offence.

Most importantly, the line has been generating scoring chances and increasing puck possession, despite the deck being stacked against them by their coach. With Winnik on the ice, the Leafs have had 59 per cent of the scoring chances and 51 per cent of the shot attempts (or Corsi) at even strength.

That ability to produce the right results in some of those categories is something the big winger – who grew up playing for the Toronto Marlboros and Wexford Raiders before going the U.S. college route to the NHL – has become known for among analysts.

It's also a big reason why he received a two-year, $4.5-million (U.S.) contract from the Leafs in the summer, as Toronto has many possession-stat backers in the front office, led by assistant general manager Kyle Dubas.

While some NHL players have begun to pay attention to these analytics in order to gauge their play, Winnik says his success there has come naturally, not as a result of the Leaf stat gurus working with him.

"I know about analytics and that stuff, but I couldn't tell you what my Corsi was last game or anything like that," Winnik said. "I've been told that I'm a good analytics player and possession player. You see articles.

"It's probably because I'm good defensively. Whatever line I'm on, we do a good job of getting quickly out of the D zone and trying to maintain O-zone time."

Winnik explained that his transition into Babcock's heavily structured system has been an easy one, as he knows many of the details from playing briefly under Todd McLellan in San Jose. While some players are still learning the finer points of what Babcock wants and the Leafs have yet to earn their first win, Winnik can already see what's being asked for working in games.

The coach's first ask is to work hard. The second is to be in the right spots on the ice as plays develop. And the third is spend as little time in the defensive zone as possible and cycle the puck down low in the offensive zone to wear down the opposition.

It's the last one where Winnik seems to excel the most. It's also a role that has become more common the past few years around the NHL: having a specialist line that starts most shifts in the defensive zone and simply tries to escape it.

Manny Malhotra did it in Vancouver when the Canucks were a top team, and it freed up the Sedins on offence to the point they were routinely two of the league's top scorers. Marcus Kruger has now taken on the assignment in Chicago to give Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews more chances at the other end of the ice, and it's contributed to the Blackhawks being a perennial Stanley Cup favourite.

It's not a flashy job. It rarely gets attention. But, every once in a while, those types will get a goal and a few more accolades.

"It makes it so easy when you have a guy like him out there," Spaling said of Winnik. "For me, coming up the middle [of the ice], I know he's going to either get it in [to the offensive zone] or make the play to the middle. He's got the mind to do that."

"He just does his job every night," teammate Peter Holland added. "You know exactly what you're going to get from him."

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