Freewheeling Kris Versteeg struggling to keep things simple

SHARE Freewheeling Kris Versteeg struggling to keep things simple
SHARE Freewheeling Kris Versteeg struggling to keep things simple

Kris Versteeg likes playing with Patrick Kane.

Well, yeah, OK, everyone likes playing with Patrick Kane — he’s one of the most gifted playmakers in the world, and makes everyone on his line look better. But Versteeg, in particular, thrives when on a line with Kane. The two just see the game in the same way.

They like to carry the puck into the offensive zone with speed rather than dump and chase. They like to hold on to the puck a second or two longer than maybe they should, looking for the perfect play. They like to take risks and look for backdoor passes and highlight-reel goals. And their natural creativity brings out the best in each other, as their remarkable run together in November and December showed.

“Obviously, me and Kane had a good thing going on,” Versteeg said. “And since I haven’t played with him in a while, it hasn’t been going my way.”

Nobody has played with Kane in a while, and without him in the lineup, the Blackhawks have streamlined their attack — it’s more straight-line movement, more direct plays up the ice, more dump-and-chase. It’s about chipping the puck in and forechecking for possession, rather than entering the zone with the puck and with speed, then looking to make a play.

And while many of his teammates have embraced the dulled-down style of play, Versteeg is still struggling with it. He has no goals and two assists in the 14 games since Kane’s injury on Feb. 24. He’s playing on the top line, but his style hasn’t meshed well with the more straight-ahead games of Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa.

The dump-and-chase just isn’t in his nature.

“It’s a little different, it definitely is,” Versteeg said. “When you’re with Kaner, you understand your role changes a bit. And when you’re without him, and you’re with Toews and Hossa, it’s definitely a more direct approach. It’s a game that’s a lot more about speed and straight-ahead. It’s a different game. I always want to carry it in and be a threat. But when you’ve got to dump it in and find ways that way, hopefully you can get it done.”

Joel Quenneville hasn’t been thrilled with Versteeg’s play lately, and said the Hawks are working to get the “delay” out of his game. Ideally, Versteeg plays to his own strengths when the opportunity arises, but doesn’t force it. When in doubt, keep it simple.

“There are some ingredients to his game that can complement a straight-ahead [style] and quickness and all that,” Quenneville said. “But at the same time, there are still some ways he can do his thing that can enhance our game.”

Versteeg, who returned from a broken hand on Feb. 11, is one of many Hawks that spent February and March mired in goal droughts. But while Patrick Sharp, Andrew Shaw and Brad Richards have been coming around, he’s still slumping.

Obviously, Kane’s absence has had plenty to do with it —Versteeg had four goals in Kane’s last six games. According to puckalytics.com, the Hawks were averaging 3.41 goals per 60 minutes (of 5-on-5 play) when Versteeg and Kane were on the ice together. They’re scoring just 2.1 goals per 60 minutes when Versteeg is on the ice without Kane, and just 2.53 goals per 60 minutes when Kane is on the ice without Versteeg. Simply put, the two are better together than they are apart.

But Kane’s not coming back until some time in the playoffs. In the meantime, it’s up to Versteeg to break out of this slump on his own, and to adapt to the Hawks’ new — and yes, a little more boring —style of play. He’s done it before, scoring 23 goals with the dump-and-chase Florida Panthers in 2011-12. It’s not the way he wants to play, but it’s the way he’s going to have to play.

Because while it’s fun to be creative, it’s more fun to win.

“Yeah, it is more fun when you carry the puck in, but whatever it takes, it takes,” he said. “It’s changed a bit since Kaner’s been out, but I’ve always prided myself on being versatile. And whether it’s a role you have to dump it in, or a role you have to check, or a role you have to score, I just want to help this team.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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