Versteeg ready for any challenge

GEORGE POPALIS, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 3:32 PM ET

TORONTO -- While it's too early to call this version of the Toronto Maple Leafs world champions, there is reason for optimism. New players brought in to change the makeup of the team have lead to increased confidence, and they have the 4-0-1 start to prove it.

Granted, it's premature to refer to the standings when trying to forecast their fortunes, but this Maple Leaf team has shown that they're intense, competitive, and hungry. A tight knit group of guys that as a whole have more skill, speed and toughness than Toronto fans have seen in years.

There is a willingness to battle in the corners, fight for loose pucks and lay down in front of hard slap-shots to protect leads. And newcomer Kris Versteeg is one of the players leading the charge.

At 5-foot-10, 182-pounds he's not your classic hulking leader by any stretch of the imagination, but he is fearless. When he's not scoring goals he's playing defence and grinding, and when he is putting the puck in the net, he's still paying attention to grittier parts of the game. It's this style of play that made the Lethbridge, Alta., native a key component of the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup winning season and exactly why he was targeted by Leafs general manager Brian Burke over the summer.

Before coming to the Leafs via trade, Versteeg put up 42 goals and 97 points over the past two seasons with the Blackhawks, including 14 points in 22 games during their successful playoff run. He's cut from the mold that Burke is fond of, and that's why he finds himself with the heightened responsibility of a first-line job with the Leafs. In Toronto, there's no Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp or Marian Hossa to push him down the depth chart.

With the Leafs, his spot on the first line with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak is relatively secure, and he should surpass career highs if he can stay healthy. A self described slow starter, Versteeg has only two points through his first five games, but the breaks will start coming his way. The opportunities have been there, including a disallowed goal in a 2-1 overtime loss last Monday to the New York Islanders, and they'll continue to come with his increased ice time.

Looking a little closer, Versteeg's lack of scoring isn't as much of a concern when one considers the other skills he brings to the table. With eight blocked shots already this season, he's third in the league among forwards in that category, two behind Ryan Kesler and just ahead of Mike Fisher, two of the hardest working, most respected players in the league.

Versteeg is in the midst of building a similar reputation, and that's making him a favourite among fans and teammates alike.

Versteeg may not have the top-end speed and lightning quick release to compare with the superstars in the NHL, but his game is balanced enough that he should become a fixture in the Leafs' top six for years to come.

The former Calder Trophy nominee plays a responsible defensive game, with enough offensive talent to command attention in the opposing zone. This alone will make room for Kessel and his huge shot, and like Versteeg's consecutive 20-goal seasons have demonstrated, he can find the net as well.

Although Versteeg has only lit the lamp once through five games, the top line has been decent. The trio has shown flashes of potency if not sustained chemistry, managing to put up 12 points so far. The fact that Kessel has accounted for more than half of those points, with seven, should come as no surprise. He's being paid over $5 million a season to be a top flight scorer, and the points will continue to slant his way.

Versteeg will earn his paycheck in a different way, by brining intensity to the ice every night and setting an example for the rest of the team. He's your classic "glue guy", and he may become one of the most popular Leafs of this new generation if he can bring some of that Stanley Cup magic from Chicago to Hogtown. After a five-year playoff drought in Toronto, the Leafs are lucky to have a guy with a Cup ring on his finger playing an integral role in trying to get to the post-season once again.


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