Please note this article was written by Adam Reid
Heading into the Christmas break one of the biggest surprises remaining in the NHL is just how well the Florida Panthers have been holding onto top spot in the Southeast division. Since November 20th, the Panthers have been untested for the position as they began building more and more of a gap between themselves and the rest of the division and now have a 5 point lead on the Winnipeg Jets who currently sit second in the South East.
There are many different circumstances which can be credited to the success of the Panthers, but for once, one player in particular can stand above the rest as a role model on this club, a player who has rejuvenated his career in Southern Florida named Kris Versteeg.
The Panthers were never known for a high powered offense which would result in winning games as they instead would ice a defensively mind team, who also counted on former goaltender Tomas Vokoun to keep them in games. But, things have changed this season as Panthers GM Dale Talon went out and acquired Versteeg who was a part of the cup winning team with him in Chicago. Tomas Fleischmann new to the club as he was signed this summer and thus created the starting lineup of Versteeg, Fleischmann and Weiss. On paper, it may not at first seem as a threat, but in reality the trio has combined for 39 goals and 100 points so far this season.
The 25-year old, Lethbridge Alberta native, Versteeg has spent most of his young career bouncing around from team to team. He was selected in the 5th round, 134th overall in the 2004 NHL Entry draft by the Boston Bruins, but never had the chance to suit up for the team as he was shipped off to Chicago for Brandon Bochenski.
Versteeg played parts of three seasons in Chicago, scoring 44 goals, and 57 assists, in 170 games. His best season was in 2008-09 when he managed 22 goals and 53 points. Despite not being a threat in the regular season, Versteeg always contributed in the post season, scoring 10 goals, and 26 points in 39 post season games for the Blackhawks and he was a part of the team which won the Stanley Cup in 2010 win a 4-2 series win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
When Chicago found themselves in cap issues after winning the Stanley Cup, Versteeg was one of the talented players shipped out of town as he found himself in the crazy-hockey market of Toronto. The Maple Leafs sent three young prospects in Viktor Stalberg, Chris DiDomenico and Philippe Paradis to Chicago for Versteeg and Bill Sweatt in hopes that he would develop into a franchise player. Sadly, he wasn’t able to provide the talent which was expected of him in Toronto, as fans became disgruntled when he proved that he was not a point-per-game producer and Versteeg found himself on a plane to Philadelphia to join the club his Blackhawks stole the Stanley cup from just the previous season. Versteeg finished the season in Philly on a sour note, as he scored just 7 goals, with 4 assists in 27 games for the Flyers.
Luckily, Panthers GM Dale Talon had not yet given up on the young star, and made a gamble sending a second and a third round pick to Philadelphia to acquire the Winger during this offseason. As it turns out, Talon is an intelligent man as his trade appeared to work out for the better as Versteeg is now tearing up the NHL in south Florida.
In 34 games this season, Versteeg thanks to his top line ice minutes now has 16 goals and 37 points, putting him above the point-per-game player statistic which was expected of him in Toronto. It should also be noted that Kris is a +18 this season, and sits tied for 8th in the NHL this season for points.
As long as he doesn’t get injured, Versteeg is on pace for a career year, averaging out about 87 points. If this number holds true, he would be the first Panthers player to eclipse the 80 point plateau since Olli Jokinen scored 91 during the 2006-07 season.
Whether Versteeg keeps his scoring rate up or not, he has surely brought new hope, and inspiration into the South Florida area, as the team finally has a guy which could potentially flourish into a franchise player. If he continues to work on his game, and develop more as a player he would not only give a good run to try and reach 100 points, but also through his leadership qualities would make a great candidate for captain of the Florida Panthers for years to come.
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