Last season, Kris Versteeg had the expectation level of most 5th round draft picks – not very high. The squirrelly winger (turned center in mid-season) didn’t prove much in his 2007-2008 debut with 4 points in 13 games. So when the season opened, fans were quite hesitant that Versteeg was even on the roster.
8 games into the season, a new fan favorite was born. In the opening two weeks, Versteeg chipped in 2 goals and 6 assists. He was seeing big minutes while seeing time on both the second power play and penalty kill units.
With the early offensive contributions, his confidence started to grow and for the first time in his young career, he had no problem showing off his superb stick-handling abilities.
Never was it more apparent than on December 3rd against the Anaheim Ducks. The Hawks came into that game on a three-game losing streak. They also were struggling with contending teams. At that point in the season, the Hawks had already dropped games to Detroit, San Jose, Anaheim, and Boston.
It didn’t look very good on this night. Anaheim took a 2-1 lead 48 seconds into the third when Chris Pronger flipped the puck from the blue line past Cristobal Huet.
From there, the Ducks started to put the squeeze on the Hawks in the neutral zone, giving them zero room to do anything with the puck.
Enter Kris Versteeg.
With just under six minutes in regulation, he picked up the puck in the neutral zone, completely dangled the Anaheim defenseman with an inside-out move, fed the puck to Duncan Keith, who in turn set up Marty Havlat for the one-timing equalizer.
He wasn’t done there. Four minutes later, he found himself alone in front of the net with only Anaheim goalie Jonas Hiller in front of him. Showing the poise of a ten-year veteran, Versteeg chipped the puck across the crease to a wide-open Jonathan Toews who poked home the game-winner.
When the Hawks were searching for a 3rd center in February, it was Versteeg who filled in admirably. Sure, he wasn’t Pierre Turgeon reincarnated, but he gave the Hawks all they could realistically ask for.
Once the playoffs rolled around, Versteeg was back on the wing. For the last three games of the Calgary series, he was a tiny beast. In those games, he racked up 2 goals and 5 assists.
In the other 14 playoff games, he managed a mere 2 goals and 2 assists. It would have been acceptable if he played a solid two-way game, but after a season of being able to stick-handle his way out of trouble, his dangling actually got him into trouble in the post-season.
The warning signs started in the Vancouver series when they employed their neutral zone trap. Instead of chipping the puck in deep, Versteeg would try to carry the zone, and more often than not, get stripped at the blue line. By the Detroit series, he became a neutral-zone liability with his puck-carrying.
Live by the sword, die by the sword. You could say that was the rallying cry for Kris Versteeg in 2008-2009.
Kris Versteeg’s 2009-2010 will be a success if…
He comes close to matching last year’s scoring output. No one is looking for Versteeg to lead the Hawks in scoring. There’s no doubt he’ll go for stretches without showing up on the scoresheet. He has to, however, remain the prime secondary scoring threat for the Hawks. While some may disown him if he goes 20/25, that would be perfectly acceptable in these parts.
He remains a balanced scorer. Last year, Versteeg scored 12 equal-strength goals, 6 power-play goals, and 4 short-handed. That is exactly the type of output the Hawks need from their second or third-line winger – a guy who is a threat to score in all facets of the game.
Kris Versteeg’s 2009-2010 will be a disappointment if…
He fails to grasp the simplicity of the game. Sometimes in hockey, you’re better off giving up possession of the puck to prevent the other team from a prime scoring opportunity. Hopefully, one of the coaches has gotten that message through to Versteeg. Early in the season, his blue line blunders probably won’t come back to bite the Hawks, but by April, he better have learned from last year’s mistakes. The Hawks don’t want to neuter one of their more skilled players; they simply want to advance his hockey IQ.
You hear the words “Rockford” and “Versteeg” in the same sentence. This may be a bit of a reach, but stranger things have happened. If one of their younger (See: cheaper) players in Rockford is deserving of a call-up and Versteeg is failing to get his season on track, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for the Hawks to send him down on the farm for the rest of the regular season. That would not be good for anybody.
With a new 3-year contract, the Calder Trophy runner-up won’t sneak up on anybody this year. He’ll be expected to play on any of the top 3 lines and score on a semi-regular basis. Whether or not the Hawks decide to use him as a penalty killer again this year remains to be seen.
As last season progressed, his play in all three zones began to deteriorate. Now that he’s been through the grind, it should be a little easier for him to stay steady.
If we could only do something about that whole sophomore slump thing….