Leafs high on Versteeg

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:23 AM ET

To avoid being driven out of town by a third non-playoff showing, Ron Wilson hopes to hitch up with a young forward who just rode in the Stanley Cup parade.

Of all the newcomers to the Maple Leafs, multi-tasking forward Kris Versteeg could indeed be the key to a post-season trip and ultimately, Wilson's job security. The coach was piling on the plaudits for the 24-year-old as the new Leaf modeled No. 32 for the TV cameras.

"I wouldn't necessarily be heaping that kind of pressure on any individuals, but picking up someone like Kris is huge," Wilson said. "I spoke to (Versteeg's Chicago teammate) Patrick Kane and he was really sad to see him go. (Blackhawks coach) Joel Quenneville and I spoke at length and he said I'll love Kris, the way he helped their penalty killing. He will bring a winning attitude. He won a Cup, he's a confident person and hopefully, that will bleed into the rest of the team."

Versteeg is the second recent Cup winner to join the Leafs with defenceman Brett Lebda (Detroit 2008) coming aboard in the summer. They join Francois Beauchemin and Jean-Sebastien Giguere from general manager Brian Burke's '07 Anaheim champions.

But not only has Versteeg been to the top of the mountain, he suffered some of the same growing pains as the Leafs, drafted into an organization that had missed the playoffs five straight years.

"I've seen both ends of the spectrum and I've seen it in a young career," Versteeg said. "Coming to Toronto, I've met a lot of great young players who are ready to get out there and fill some shoes. I've come from an organization that wasn't winning, watched it grow and watched young guys grow together.

"For myself, it's getting back to basics, not just helping out on the scoresheet every night, but on power play and penalty kill so we're bringing energy in different ways. If it's giving a little song and dance in the dressing room (he is something of a closet rapper), that's fine. I'm looking to bring everything I had in Chicago here.

Versteeg had 53 points as a rookie in mounting a surprise Calder Trophy challenge to Steve Mason and Bobby Ryan and in the Cup year, had 44 points with a further 14 in playoffs. But to start Saturday's camp scrimmages, he won't be on the first line as Wilson elects to start Nikolai Kulemin at left wing with Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel. That's a nod to the trio's good finish last year. But Versteeg can also play centre and right wing, which could help either the first or second lines if Bozak or Kulemin can't click with potential 40-goal man Kessel or a reliable No. 2 centre doesn't pan out between Nazem Kadri and Mikhail Grabovski.

"I know in my heart I can play (centre)," the 5-foot-10 Versteeg said. "I played it after Christmas in Chicago about 10 to 15 games mainly after Dave Bolland went down, Patrick Sharp and I split it. But whatever position they want, I'll do my best."

Wilson would love it if Versteeg is still dancing around the room in late April, but as someone hired and fired in a few places with 1,255 games coached, he's not treading cautiously through the pre-season.

"No more (pressure) than necessary," Wilson said. "That's your job as a coach.

"We feel pretty confident. In the last year we've re-vamped our roster. We still have a long ways to go to be considered a bona fide Cup contender, but we truly believe we have what it takes here to contend for a playoff position. And we saw last year you could get into the playoffs on the last night on the shootout (Philadelphia Flyers) and end up in the final.

"We have good goaltending, as deep a defence as I've ever had and an exciting group of forwards. In these scrimmages (Saturday), it's not dip your toe in and see if the water's cold. It's dive in and start swimming as fast as you can. If you're waiting to show what you can do in an exhibition game it's not good enough. You have to be ready to go tomorrow."


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