I was at the game last night, possibly the first shoot-out winner I've seen live. The excitement of the shoot-out made up for an otherwise slower game. I left feeling damn good with two points in hand, and even better when I saw that Vancouver was losing in Anaheim (they ended up with an OL).
And there's one guy I have to thank for it. He doesn't have all of Kane's smooth and exciting skills, but he's got some. He doesn't have all of Toews moxy and all-around impact, but he's got some. He doesn't have all of Campbell's speed and playmaking, but he's got some. He doesn't have all of Sharp's knack for finding the net, but he's got some. He doesn't have all of Havlat's amazing hockey sense and complete skill set, but he's got some. And he doesn't have Keith's motor or every-facet impact, but he's got some.
That's Kris Versteeg to me - a guy who takes a little bit of the best part of the games of everyone else on the team. Quietly, with little local media or hockey insider attention, Versteeg is showing himself the kind of invaluable player that makes for a championship squad.
Last night the Hawks offense looked like a shell of the squad that has been a league leader in scoring all season. Sharp and Havlat were both out and Kane remains slowed from that high ankle sprain (whether it's mental or physical at this point is debatable, but the fact that he's not the same guy he was before the injury is not). The Hawks still got their shots (another 40+ night) and even had a good amount of prime scoring chances, but two periods in they had only a single goal to show for it.
And that's when Versteeg answered the bell, despite skating on a garbage line with a pair of Rockford call-ups. He took a breakaway down the left side and beat the goalie with a beautiful shot - giving the Hawks the lead that had eluded them all night, despite many other breakaway chances that were far better than what Versteeg saw. And come the shoot-out, it was Versteeg who beat the goalie to win 3-2 in 4 rounds.
It's been that way all season. Doesn't matter that he's juggled up and down the lines, from wing to center. Doesn't matter if he's run up against the "rookie wall." Doesn't matter if the rest of the team's offense is a bit off or undermanned. Versteeg just keeps on producing. With 18 G and 28 A, he currently leads all rookies in scoring, just like he's done all year. That includes 13 power play points - the exact same as Havlat has. But he's also got 7 short-handed points, by far the most on the team. And did we mention he's a +16, despite playing on weak lines all year?
No one else might be making a big thing of this kid, but I'm going to. Because despite leading rookies in scoring, he may not even make the All-Rookie team. He certainly won't win Rookie of the Year - that's going to Mason (G-CBJ), and deservedly so. I'm not sure how they choose the All-Rookie team, but if it needs a true center and two wingers, Versteeg could lose the winger spots to Ryan (ANA) with 23 G in 50 G and Wheeler (BOS) with 38 Points and +32 on one of the league's top teams.
But I don't care, because I think Versteeg will get plenty of props come April. Maybe not this April - he is a rookie and the team is woefully inexperienced. But the fact is that the Hawks should be post-season mainstays and Versteeg is a big reason. And I believe he's the kind of kid who will step it up when the need is greatest. His two-way skill will keep him on the ice and his ability to make plays when no one around him can will allow him to shine.
I'm excited to see Toews become the next Mark Messier, I'm excited to see what Havlat can do year-in and year-out if healthy. I can't wait to see Kane shake off this injury and elevate to pure superstar status. And at some point, it'll be fun to see Keith finally get his due as the Hawks' best player and one of hockey's elite defenseman on both ends of the ice. But I think Versteeg is gonna be every bit as impactful for the Hawks over the next decade as any of those guys. And I'm looking forward to seeing it happen.
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