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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hawks Squawk: Rookie Kris Versteeg Early Favorite For Calder

By Sarah Spain
Originally published 11/24/08 on MouthpieceSports.com

Chicago Blackhawks rookie Kris Versteeg would never admit to checking out the stats of his fellow rookies or scanning the NHL leaderboards for his name. The 22-year-old forward is content just to be a part of one the league’s fastest-rising teams.

“I just try to help this team win,” Versteeg told me earlier this season. “It doesn’t matter in the rookie race where I finish, it matters where the Chicago Blackhawks finish.”

Despite his “team first” approach, Versteeg’s individual play has him leading the pack in the race for Rookie of the Year. Named to this week’s NHL.com “Hot List” for his recent play, the Lethbridge, Alberta native is making the most of his enviable position sharing a line with superstar sophomores Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

In his last four games, Versteeg has put in four goals and dished out three assists. He’s riding a five-game scoring streak and has scored 20 points in his 19 games with the Hawks—a mark that ties him for second-most on the team with Patrick Sharp. His +/- of 11 trails only Aaron Johnson on the team and leaves him tied for seventh overall in the NHL.

In 2004, the Boston Bruins drafted Versteeg in the fifth round, but he was traded to the Hawks for Brandon Bochenski in 2007. Versteeg played just 13 games with Chicago in 2007, spending most of the season with the Rockford Ice Hogs. Many scouts pegged the 5’10”, 180 pounder as too small and too weak for NHL standards.

Versteeg, following in the footsteps of diminutive linemate Kane, who won the Calder Trophy last year, looks to be enjoying proving his doubters wrong.

His 20 points, 13 assists and plus-11 rating are all first among rookies. His seven goals put him third behind the Leafs’ Mikhail Grabovksi and the Blue Jackets’ Derick Brassard, who have nine and eight goals, respectively.

Of course, Versteeg himself is the first to point out that his success is due in great part to his teammates.

“I‘m playing with two great players,” said Versteeg of linemates Kane and Toews. “It’s fun playing with them … those two are pretty special.”

With a nose for the net, great hands and endless hustle, Versteeg manages to keep up with the two 2008 Calder Trophy finalists. His success on the first line has allowed the Blackhawks to use Sharp to anchor the second, a move that helps compensate for the team’s lack of a true second line center.

A confident, outgoing guy (this season’s impromptu locker room serenade of Fergie’s “Glamorous” came as no surprise to his teammates) Versteeg is handling his newfound success with equal parts aplomb and humility. He’s quick to smile and eager to praise the efforts of his teammates, two great qualities that never show up in a box score.

The Hawks are just 19 games into the 82-game season, so only time will tell if Versteeg can stay hot all year. The NHL, enjoying one of its most popular seasons in years, would certainly benefit from a funny, personable guy like Versteeg (from an Original Six team, no less) taking home the hardware at year’s end.

The song that should accompany Versteeg on his walk to the podium at the 2009 NHL Awards ceremony? “Glamorous,” of course.

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