To Kris Versteeg, it’s pretty simple.
“I guess when you play like (expletive), you’re not going to play,” the Blackhawks winger said after spending Monday’s practice skating on a “line” with the suspended Joakim Nordstrom and defenseman Johnny Oduya.
’Tis the season for Joel Quenneville message-sending, as Brandon Saad learned last March and Bryan Bickell learned last week. The healthy scratch is Quenneville’s go-to move to get a struggling player going, and he wields it liberally this time of year.
Quenneville’s latest target appears to be Versteeg, though the coach didn’t definitively rule the winger out of Tuesday’s home game against the New York Islanders. But Patrick Sharp, who scored two goals Saturday in a 6-2 win over the San Jose Sharks and has been buzzing around the net lately, was in Versteeg’s spot on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. The two had swapped spots a few times over the course of Saturday’s game.
“Sharpie deserved a chance to move up, and we’re just looking for some more [from Versteeg],” Quenneville said. “His last game wasn’t very good.”
Sharp has been on the receiving end of Quenneville’s messages earlier this season, too. While he was never benched, he saw his ice time drop in February as he played mostly on the third and fourth lines. But with Sharp emerging from his lengthy slump, Quenneville is reuniting what was arguably the top line in the league last season. With three skilled, two-way players, the trio can shut down opponents’ top lines while still being productive.
“Three guys who can all make plays and score goals,” Quenneville said. “I’m sutra they’re excited about the opportunity of making it work together.”
Versteeg has been one of the Hawks’ most consistent performers this season, but his play has dropped off since linemate Patrick Kane’s injury on Feb. 24. In the seven games since, Versteeg has no goals and one assist. In his last six games, he’s had just four shots on goal.
Versteeg always has had a tendency to hold on to the puck and look for the high-risk, high-reward play. With Kane on the other wing, it can lead to some highlight-reel goals. But with goals at a premium this time of year, Quenneville said he wants to see Versteeg be more direct with the puck.
“He’s got the ability to make plays, delays,” Quenneville said. “[But] if it’s a slow-down tactic with the checking schemes, now all of a sudden, you got five guys back and then we lose pucks. … There are times [when holding on to the puck is appropriate], but off the rush we don’t want to get the guys who are behind you to catch up. We want to be attacking them.”
Quenneville downplayed his tendency to send messages this time of year, simply saying, “You’re going to get what you deserve.”
So how quickly Versteeg gets the message will decide if and when he gets back in the lineup.
“I’m not going to change anything,” he said. “I’m just going to keep playing the same way. You want to work hard and be a positive influence. If you’re not, you don’t have the right to be in the lineup. Just keep working hard and hopefully get back in.”