Maple Leafs' Missing Piece? Kris Versteeg Could Be Answer for First-Line Success

Jon NeelyAnalyst ISeptember 28, 2010

PHILADELPHIA - JUNE 04:  Kris Versteeg #32 of the Chicago Blackhawks handles the puck against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Four of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Wachovia Center on June 4, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Since the day Phil Kessel was infamously traded from the Boston Bruins to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the same question has remained: Who is going to be his set-up man?

More specifically, who can be the man in the middle to feed Kessel the puck?

And the answer to these questions has been the same: Only time will tell.

But as the preseason continues on, two things have become very apparent about the first line. First, Kessel, Tyler Bozak, and Kris Versteeg's names are in ink as the starting trio on Oct. 7.

Second, Versteeg might just be better than advertised, and a more useful set-up man than many have given him credit for.

Coming from the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks to the second-to-last place Maple Leafs might not have been the most exciting thing the 24-year-old has ever had to deal with. But since he stepped foot on the exhibition ice, he's been nothing but outstanding.

Flanked on the left wing, and essentially given free rein on the ice by the coaching staff, he has been one of the best Leafs on the ice in each game he's appeared in thus far.

His speed is obvious immediately, but what separates him from many of his teammates is that his stick-handling is seemingly just as good at top speed as when he's standing still.

As far as the team he joins, well, they're clearly nowhere near as good as the team he left. But when it comes to personal success for Versteeg, there may be no better place in the league than Toronto for him to flourish.

After Bozak's brief, yet successful, first-line role last season (27 points in 37 games), Leaf fans were buzzing with anticipation for this year, when he could play the sidekick to his new BFF Kessel, the much-needed Robin to Kessel's Batman.

If Bozak and Kessel could continue the chemistry they showed in the final months of last season, things could only get better for the Leafs and their offensive woes.

But then Versteeg was thrown into the mix, coming over from the most offensively-stacked team in the NHL, where he was used mostly in a third-line role and penalty killer, hovering around 15 minutes of ice time on a nightly basis.

Even in that role, he has still managed to put up solid numbers over the past two seasons, scoring 22 and 20 goals, respectively.

His skill has never been in question, but his play has always been overshadowed by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (among others), and he rarely got the opportunity to excel for any extended period of time.

Well, consider that opportunity to excel standing right in front of him as we speak. He hasn't just gone from a team that had no trouble scoring whether he chipped in or not.

He has arrived on a team that desperately needs him to perform if they're going to go anywhere this season.

Oh, and it just happens to be on the biggest stage in the NHL. Quaint.

Though, from what little we've seen of Versteeg in his career, he certainly has no problem in the entertainment part of the job, as he has enough flash and flare to go around.

The critics immediately jumped on his back, chiming in that he is not the type of player who can handle the first-line responsibilities, or that his personal success in Chicago was only because of the surrounding players, all of which might be true, of course. But his play in the preseason this year says he's more than ready to step into that role of "Mr. We-need-you-to-produce-or-we're-screwed" for the Leafs.

Sure, exhibition games are just exhibition games, or as my British friend once described something completely unrelated, "as useful as a chocolate teapot." But the experiment with Versteeg on the top line is so far, so good.

It's so much more than just his hands that stand out, too. His out-of-this-world vision  and patience with the puck are two aspects of his game that make him lethal in the offensive zone, exactly the kind of thing the Leafs will need this season.

Scratch that—it's exactly the type of thing Kessel needs this season.

As Monday night's game against the Sabres showed us, Versteeg's ability to see the ice and not hurry the offense not only put him in the right spot at the right time, but allowed Kessel to find the open spot and create scoring chances. Versteeg assisted on both Kessel goals in the 5-4 win.

Kessel is a finisher, a stone-cold goal scorer with a shot that would put the average goaltender into early retirement. When given opportunity to set up in the slot or beside the net, he is almost unstoppable (as we have seen on all four of his goals this preseason), which is why he can't be the guy to have the puck all the time in the offensive zone.

He needs to be the last one with the puck, and the first one with his hands in the air in celebration.

And though Bozak is a worthy center man (we hope) for years to come, for Kessel it might just be the new kid on the block who turns out to make the biggest difference in the Leafs' attack.

There is no telling how good Versteeg can be this season, simply because we've never seen him in such an important role as he will play this year for the Buds.

And more than that, more than his ability to send pinpoint passes, his goal-scoring ability will force defenders to keep one eye on him when the puck isn't in his possession, too.

Thirty goals is not out of the question for him, and though that number might look mighty lofty for the native of Lethbridge, Alberta, it's certainly in reach when you think of what he was able to do with limited minutes in the Windy City.

Fresh off having his name misspelled on the Stanley Cup (spelled Vertseeg) and then quickly corrected, the new Leaf is poised to shine in his new role.

As for Leaf fans who've been begging for a worthy helper for Kessel since he got here, they may already have a more worthy candidate than they ever imagined.

But like all things in Leaf Nation these days, only time will tell.