OTTAWA - When Jesse Winchester got a look at the line combinations for the first day of on-ice workouts, the Ottawa Senators' rookie must have felt a bit like he'd won the lottery.
The 24-year-old newcomer is being given a shot in training camp to play with stars Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley on the team's top line.
"It was a great first day," a beaming Winchester said Wednesday after the Senators hit the ice for the fist time at Scotiabank Place. "It was a hard-working practice, that's for sure, up tempo, a lot of fun, I got my feet wet and now I'm looking to build from here."
With just one game of NHL experience to his credit, the product of Colgate University is has been thrust into the spotlight alongside two of the team's most-skilled offensive players.
The spot to the right of centre Spezza is usually occupied by Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, but, in an attempt to balance the lines, new coach Craig Hartsburg is taking a look at new faces in that role.
At first glance, Winchester, who turns 25 on Oct. 4, appears to have the right tools for the job. At six-foot-one, 204 pounds, he's got decent size, has the skating ability and, most importantly, the smarts and the ability to move the puck.
"He's been in rookie camp and shown up in good shape. Just seeing him a little bit today and in the summer, he just seems like he's a good puck-possession guy," Spezza said. "He's a pretty smart player, hopefully, we can make it work.
"It's going to take him maybe a couple of games, a couple of practices. We're going to kind have to explain a few things that we do and where he should be going on the ice and you kind of have to find your place - who has the puck, who shoots, who does what. That's what we've done with Alfie. I think Winchester's the type of guy that's a pretty smart hockey guy."
It's not a bad place to be in for a player who was never drafted. He grew up not far from Ottawa in Long Sault, Ont., near Cornwall, and played junior A hockey in the Ottawa-area Central Junior Hockey League.
He spent four years at Colgate with the Red Raiders and served as the team's captain in 2007-08, where he recorded eight goals and an ECAC-high 29 assists in 40 games.
The Senators originally signed him as a free agent in March after monitoring him over the better part of last season and, after he made his NHL debut on March 29 against the Boston Bruins, they inked him to a two-year deal in May. He's on the books for just US$525,000 for 2008-09. It's a one-way deal, so he figures to be on the big team's roster this season.
Whether he stays with Spezza and Heatley will depend on how quickly he adapts.
"We expect it to change quite a bit, (but) I think they'd like to kind of find one guy maybe that can fill in and maybe copy Alfie right away just to give us a (different) look," Spezza said. "Winnie's the type of player that we generally play well with, guys who can move the puck, so I'm interested to see how it goes."
It's a shuffle the Senators have tried in past years and Ottawa fans will remember that former Senator Brandon Bochenski was given the opportunity in the 2005-06 season and, after shining in pre-season, didn't stay long when it became clear he wasn't able to handle the responsibility.
"First you've got to play against the top guys on the other team, so you can't go making too many mistakes. But I think it's more puck possession," said Spezza. "You've got to be able to hang onto the puck, cycle the puck, make the little plays. A lot of our game is away from the puck, working hard and trying to get open and trying to find that hole and when you do, you've got to break to it and you've got to find a guy who'll get you the puck when you do find the little hole.
"You're against the top-checking defencemen all the time, so it's just being opportunistic."
In typical hockey-speak, Winchester said he'll just try to keep it simple and do what he can to keep the experiment going.
"Just staying within your game, within yourself," are the keys, he said after Day 1. "I was just trying to get the systems down, obviously with a new coach, and just trying to keep working hard and keeping up with those two guys.
"I'm just going to try and focus on the things that I do well and hopefully that will help me in the future break the lineup here. I can make space for them."
Meanwhile, Alfredsson found himself playing with centre Chris Kelly and left-winger Nick Foligno to start camp, although he's not sure he'll still be there by the time the Senators depart for their regular-season opening trip to Sweden after five exhibition games in eight days, beginning Saturday at home to the New York Rangers.
"It's going to be lot of different combinations throughout camp, but they're both good players," Alfredsson said. "It takes pressure off everybody to have three lines that can score and be offensive on any given night, there's no question.
"We've had me, Spezza and Heater before and it puts a lot of pressure on one line to perform. With 82 games, if you can spread it out, it makes life easier on everybody."