There was a time, not so long ago, that few people thought Chicago Blackhawks
left winger Kris Versteeg
would make it to the NHL.
Too small, they said. Too inconsistent. Doesn't score enough for a guy who doesn't have a physical game.
Versteeg is proving lots of people wrong this season. Going into the weekend, Versteeg led all NHL rookies with 12 assists and was tied with Columbus Blue Jackets
center Derick Brassard
with 19 points. Versteeg also leads all NHL rookies with a plus-11 rating. He is second on the Blackhawks to defenseman Aaron Johnson
, who is plus-12.
One thing helping the Lethbridge, Alberta, native, who was the Boston Bruins
' fifth-round pick in the 2004 Entry Draft. He’s playing on the Blackhawks' top line with center Jonathan Toews
, the team’s young captain, and right wing Patrick Kane
, the reigning Calder Trophy winner.
The Blackhawks would like nothing better than to see Versteeg succeed Kane as the rookie of the year. But head coach Joel Quenneville
wants Versteeg to keep his focus in the now .
"Young guys sustaining their success over time is always the question mark," Quenneville said. "Kris has gotten off to a tremendous start and consistency is what he has shown. That’s the challenge. If he is consistent in his overall game I fully expect him to continue to produce. It’s something we are going to keep our eye on this season. He’s not a big guy but he certainly enhanced his strength and the size of himself over the summer. We are going to give him every opportunity to succeed."
Toews liked what he saw in 13 games a year ago.
"He had a few games last year and, even then, he deserved to play at this level," said Toews. "He's very skilled in so many ways. You see him in practice and he's got great hands and he's always got his head up.”
Toews is one of the league's fastest skaters. He said Versteeg "doesn't have a problem getting from A to B" or keeping up on the top line.
"He's in the right areas out there and good scorers know where to go to get the puck and score goals," said Toews.
"All I have to do is try to get them the puck and work hard and get in the corners and things like that, help get [Toews and Kane] the puck and let them do their magic," said Versteeg.
played left wing on that line a year ago, but the Blackhawks wanted Sharp centering right wing Martin Havlat
and left wing Troy Brouwer
. Versteeg's development has allowed them to do that. Sharp still takes a shift now and then at first-line left wing, and Brouwer and big Dustin Byfuglien
have also seen time there. Versteeg has also shown good chemistry with Sharp and Havlat when's he's been bumped down to the second line.
It's been a bit of a strange journey for Versteeg, 5-foot-10 and 180. In one of those "the world will little note, nor long remember" deals, Versteeg was traded on Feb. 3, 2007, by the Bruins to the Blackhawks' for Brandon Bochenski
, a player five years older who is now with the AHL Norfolk Admirals.
Boston General Manager Peter Chiarelli was in his first full season at the helm of the Bruins and Versteeg was an "orphan," a player drafted by the previous administration. Chiarelli had been the Ottawa Senators
assistant general manager when the team drafte d Bochenski out of Minnesota high-school hockey and remembered how well Bochenski meshed with Jason Spezza
when they played together for the AHL Binghamton Senators.
Versteeg had a history of pleasing one coach and disappointing others. He never played "up" in minor hockey, that is, he was the average player who would go from the "A" team in his older Squirt, PeeWee and Bantam years to the "B" in his younger year of the two-year brackets. But he managed to play for Canada in his Under-17 and Under-18 years, although he was left off the Canadian World Junior Team in 2006. That still bothers him.
After a first junior season in which he had 18 points in 57 games, Versteeg averaged 50 points a year his next three seasons with Lethbridge, Kamloops and Red Deer. The Providence Bruins brought him up at the end of his fourth season for 13 regular-season AHL games and five Calder Cup playoff games.
He was having a solid first full season in the AHL when he was traded from Providence and assigned to the AHL Norfolk Admirals. He played there and in Rockford last year for coach Mike Haviland, now a Blackhawks' assistant coach.
"Kris has come a long way in his development and understanding of what it's going to take to be a full-time NHL player," Haviland said. "I'm very proud of where he's come in the year and a half I've worked with him and am excited to see where he can take things. He's a highly skilled player which really means the sky is the limit for him."
Versteeg played for Devils coach Brent Sutter
in Red Deer and another current NHL head coach, the Islanders' Scott Gordon
, in Providence.
"At 19, I went over to Red Deer and we didn't have many defensemen so the coach, Brent Sutter
, slotted me back on defense for half a year," Versteeg recalled. "It was fun and it taught me a lot of things. I don't think even Brent knows how much he taught me when he put me back on defense."
Even so, Versteeg himself said "I didn't really have a lot of luck in my junior years" that included not making the World Juniors team one season after previously competing for Canada at the international level.
Sutter said he put Versteeg back on defense "because I wanted him to learn to move the puck. Kris was not a bad kid at all. He was a great kid. He had a reputation before we acquired him, but we didn't have a single issue with him. He had things in his game that he had to work on because he was a one-dimensional player. He wanted to have the puck, but didn't want to use his teammates. He wanted to go through the other team and he got himself in situations that didn't work. He was a phenomenal stick handler. It was like the puck was on a string but he never let it off the string so I put him on defense for about 20 games.
"It upsets me when I hear negative things about Kris because he is a tremendous kid and I don't have one negative thing to say about him. He's a kid with a little bit of cockiness, but I like that in a player. He's confident in himself. All we did with him was get him to work within the confines of team play on the ice. I thought he was a very good player in junior hockey."
Versteeg said he enjoyed playing for Gordon, who “gave me a great chance.”
"Kris came to Providence as player who had a reputation as being a bad apple, but he came in and showed that that was the furthest from the truth," Gordon said. "He came in every day and wanted to get better, which he did. When he got traded, I said to my assistant coach 'which player would you hate to see traded' and he picked him.
"We knew he would be a hard guy to replace. Kris came to Providence with a great attitude and wanting to get better and he did."