At any point throughout the season, there may not have been a larger supporter of Kris Versteeg than yours truly. Throughout last summer and the cries for trading the veteran forward, I was among the few who believed that he could bring some good things to the Hawks as a versatile winger capable of contributing on special teams.
And for a while, he was just that.
Playing on a line with Patrick Kane and Brad Richards, Versteeg began to rediscover some of his old form and started to erase the unfortunate memories of the 2013-14 NHL playoffs, in which he served as a healthy scratch on a number of occasions. That trio of Versteeg, Richards, and Kane could very easily have a case as the best line for the Chicago Blackhawks early in the season.
Versteeg finished the regular season with 34 points across 61 games. He went down with an injury during the Winter Classic on January 1st, accruing just seven points from that point on, five of which were goals. That was after going for 27 points in his first 34 games, leaving him among the Blackhawks' offensive leaders.
In the Hawks' first round matchup against the Nashville Predators, Versteeg was reunited with Brad Richards and a returning Patrick Kane. The hope was that he could get back into a groove in playing with his buddy Patrick Kane. And yet, it was more of the same, as he scored just a single goal, his only point of the series, across the six games against Nashville.
The situation isn't entirely similar to last year, either. There were excuses to be made for Versteeg, even after a horrible playoff appearance. He was coming off of a knee injury and didn't have a full summer before the season began, leaving him burnt out when the spring arrived. He has no such excuse this time around.
Versteeg's play on the ice since his return from the injury suffered against Washington on January 1st could be considered...erratic. He's doing a lot of the same things that plagued him last year. He's passing when he should shoot, and shooting when he should pass. He's throwing the puck to nowhere, both in terms of his zone entries and simple passes. He's stirring things up at times when it isn't warranted and can do more harm than good. He's appeared lazy at times. He just doesn't look as comfortable out there as he did earlier in the season. It's hard to believe that that's a side effect of his return from that injury.
Could it be something deeper? Might he be playing hurt, or did he come back from his initial hand/wrist injury too quickly? Sure, those are possibilities, but we haven't heard anything to indicate that that's the case here.
What all of this has led to is a staunch Versteeg supporter such as myself renouncing him as an asset to the Chicago Blackhawks at this point. On Monday, he skated with the fifth line, with Bryan Bickell occupying his spot on the left wing on the second unit, and Teuvo Teravainen holding down the third line. As things stand right now, this is the best possible lineup for the Blackhawks, and it doesn't include Kris Versteeg.
That's not to say that Versteeg will find his way out of the lineup for Game 1 against the Minnesota Wild. This could be a wakeup call for him. But the real wakeup call would come from sitting him for a game, rather than a practice. I would expect these lines to roll into one game, and depending on how things shake out, Versteeg may have to wait this next stretch before we see him again.
With the Blackhawks set to purge some of their key talent from the roster this summer, Versteeg's deal may allow him to serve as a holdover, given his versatility and fact that Florida is playing half of his contract. He can be an asset, in the form in which he appeared early in the year. Perhaps leaving him out of the mix at practice, and the potential subsequent benching that follows in Game 1 will wake him up. But regardless of what occurs after, an upcoming scratch of Kris Versteeg is absolutely necessary.
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.