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April 3, 2012: Sunrise, FL, USA; Florida Panthers right wing Kris Versteeg (32) warms up before a game against the Winnipeg Jets at the BankAtlantic Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Florida Panther Player Ratings: Kris Versteeg

Kris Versteeg, perhaps the most outgoing in the Panthers’ locker room, brought a lot more than a good sense of humor to South Florida. Despite missing nine games late in the season, the winger put up a career-best 54 points (23 goals, 31 points) this year. He played a huge part in getting the Cats their first division title in franchise history and their first playoff berth in 12 years.

His 54th point came in the last regular season game against Carolina, the game that also got the Panthers the final point they needed to close out Washington for the division title. He assisted on “FlashMob” line-mate Stephen Weiss’ second period goal to barely surpass his 53 point total from ’08-’09 with Chicago.

Steeger quickly became a fan favorite, and for good reason. After being acquired from Philadelphia last off-season in exchane for draft picks, he quickly settled in to his role on the top line and had no trouble developing chemistry with the rest of the squad, including 10 other new faces who played elsewhere in the preceding season.

Statistically his best month was November, not long after the Panthers had surprised so many with their strong start out of the gate. He was a +8 on the ice and scored seven goals and eight assists which helped surge the Cats past Washington and Winnipeg to the top of the Southeast Division. Only about a month into the season, he and the other new snipers finally gave fans a reason to be excited to check the standings.

The 25-year-old played in his 300th career game on February 7 against the rival Caps. His milestone game unfortunately resulted in a 4-0 shutout loss, but earlier in the year he achieved a different milestone against another division foe. He netted his first career hat trick against Winnipeg (a team he fared very well against this year) on Nov. 10. He also seemed to have Tampa’s number, and tied a career-high four points in a single game (2 goals, 2 assists) on October 17th’s 7-4 routing of the Lightning.

As Panthers’ fans well know, one of the main reasons the division race came down to the very last day of the regular season is that the Cats – to put it kindly – “struggled” in OT/SO games. Versteeg scored the only overtime game-winner of the entire season against Carolina on December 18.

After winning the Cup with Chicago in the ’09-’10 season, Steeger has played for three other teams (Toronto, Philadelphia and Florida). He is a restricted free agent this off-season, and after the stellar year that he had he should be in the bargain for a better contract. He underwent hip surgery in Nashville last Thursday, and is expected to make a full recovery well before the start of next season, but he will be monitered closely in the meantime.

I can’t speak for all Panthers fans, but I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want him to suit up in Panther red on next year’s opener. He brought with him energy, a high point total, physicality and an amusing demeanor. Oh, and judging by Soupy’s reaction here, he’s a decent rapper.

Season grade: A- (would like to see his shootout productivity increase).

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