The difference between making the postseason and hitting the golf course early? It’s not in the individual stars, but the constellation as a whole. Trace this season’s postseason berth all you like to the stellar play of Chicago’s super stalwarts, including Patrick Kane
, Jonathan Toews
, Martin Havlat, Patrick Sharp
and Nikolai Khabibulin – no doubt, credit is due in all cases.
But without taking the superstars for granted, well, there’s a reason they are the backbone of the team and the cornerstone of its success.
No, the true story of a team leapfrogging over much of the cream of the Western Conference and fulfilling the playoff dreams of Blackhawks fans everywhere lies in the layer beneath the superstars. On a team filled with players skating ahead faster than they ever have, it’s the contributions of the Blackhawks’ surprise standouts that have made the true difference.
That said, any tale told of the unheraldeds and remarkables from this Blackhawks season has to start with Kris Versteeg, the team’s breakout freshman and second straight Calder Trophy contender.
Chicago is already well-stocked with last year’s Rookie of the Year in Kane and Calder Finalist Toews, as well as a virtual bench mob of other promising youngsters. That the 22-year-old Versteeg broke out this season as the team’s fourth-best scorer (50 points heading into April) was almost unfair.
Versteeg is quick to acknowledge that the Blackhawks culture has played a major role in a breakout rookie season that saw such healthy scoring and plus-minus numbers.
“I never thought I’d be able to get into the NHL and feel so comfortable right away,” Versteeg says. “The veterans here make you feel like an important part of the team, whether you’re going through a rough patch, or sitting out with injury like I was at the [All-Star] break.”
The big goals — including a couple of game-winners — told enough of a tale, but the left wing otherwise known as Steeger made a genuine impression on his fellow Hawks off the ice, too.
“He’s a little crazy,” says right wing Martin Havlat, who Versteeg idolized as a youngster growing up in Alberta. “He’ll sing, crack jokes. He really seems like a guy who’s been [in the NHL] before.”
No one expected Versteeg to make such a fast and potent impact for the Blackhawks. After a modest 2007-08 season in Rockford, where his sixth year on the ice was highlighted by 49 points (0.88 ppg) and a plus-six rating, it seemed improbable that the first goal of the NHL Winter Classic 2009 would be tallied by the 5-10, 180-pounder from Lethbridge.
But the Chicago coaching staff saw quickly that Versteeg was a scorer with some bite, and the kid skated his way into the rotation. As the season wore on, Hawks coach Joel Quenneville admired the rookie’s feistiness.
“Yeah, there are times we need to keep him on keel,” the mentor says. “But it’s easier to temper a player than it is to light a fire. Steeger’s got that fire. He likes to be ‘on.’”
Like Versteeg, his elder by three weeks, Dave Bolland
has an eye to make the net go poof but won’t shy from a shoulder jam or a hip check. The sleek 180-pounder is a potent combination of speed and skill, with a tendency to leave both fans and his own coaches salivating for more.
At just 22, Bolland found himself centering Chicago’s most effective line for much of 2008-09, and responded with a sophomore season that set hopes high that the Hawks may have another perennial All-Star on their hands.
“What Bolsy did, anchoring our third line, shutting down [opponents’] top lines, he’s just been stellar,” Quenneville says. “Bolsy, Ladder [Andrew Ladd], Havlat, they’ve been the unsung heroes of the season.”Get the full article in Blackhawks Magazine at any Blackhawks 2009 home playoff game. Can't make it to a game and want to purchase an issue? Call the Blackhawks Store at 1-800-GO-HAWKS.