With Versteeg Out, the Question is “Who’s Next?”

By Bill Whitehead

I called it a night early on Thursday. After a long day of work, I shut it down about 9:30, which, of course, means I awoke seven hours later. I immediately checked my email and discovered that veteran winger Kris Versteeg had been traded by Florida to Chicago. I saw the other names involved, made a kind of “meh” sound, rolled over and shut my eyes again.

That’s what Versteeg had come to mean to the Panthers, at least in my book: Not worth losing any sleep over.

While it would be easy to knock Versteeg and his play – creative and with a sizzling finishing touch when it’s good; turnover-prone, pointless and usually featuring a lot of senseless overskating when it’s bad – the now 2-time Blackhawk played an important role in Florida’s Southeast Division-winning team two years ago. And forget about “loser points” and qualifying what happened in that division. Florida won that banner and earned it, and it will hang in BB&T Center (and the future names of the building) forever. As bad as that division was, someone still had to win it. Plus, imagine the disappointment Panthers’ fans would’ve endured if the club had blown it that last home game against Carolina after holding the division lead for so long?

Again, I’m happy with that banner. And it wouldn’t have been possible, simply no if, ands or buts whatsoever, without Steeger. He played on a top line with center Stephen Weiss and fellow winger Tomas Fleischmann on a line that was the most productive in the NHL the first third of the season and terrorized opposing defenses.

When Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon finally made his appearance on Friday morning’s conference call with the media, he sounded like a frustrated man – a man who has tried and tried to find answers with scoring, defense and goaltending but come up empty every time. Well, most every time.

He sounded like a man at his wit’s end. His head coach of 2-plus years? Fired. A club picked last by most of the pundits and playing like it? Yep, got that. The blueprint for success firmly on schedule and up to speed? Well, not so fast…

There have been successes along the way this season. Jesse Winchester has been the best Panther on the ice most of the year, and former Bruins Brad Boyes and Tim Thomas have played well. Scottie Upshall has stepped up his game, and Nick Bjugstad’s progress and standout play means his time in San Antonio is officially over. I hope he visited the Alamo because he’s not going back during hockey season.

Friday’s brief conference call centered around Versteeg, but it was really much more about Tallon and the Panthers’ future than it was about the crooning winger. We all wish Steeger well – he was a solid interview and gave it back at you at times – but he’s gone. That’s it. Most red-clad fans will now focus on the development of Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen rather than Versteeg. He’s in the past – a valuable part of the past, mind you, but relegated to memory status like an ex. An ex you think fondly of, but still an ex. I’ll remember this overtime winner against Carolina in a Sunday matinee game:

Now, it’s on Tallon. Sure, he signed Versteeg to that contract and the organization will eat half of the remaining contract, which doesn’t appear so great, but that deal also helped raise that banner that’s hanging in the rafters. He couldn’t have anticipated the forward’s hip and knee injuries, which have hampered Versteeg for two seasons, limited his production and devalued him immensely. And Tallon has other deals out there worse than this one. But this was all he was going to get for Versteeg: an AHLish forward with some promise and a late first-round defenseman, both with imposing builds and in the bigger, stronger, tougher mold Tallon wants.

“We’ve got to turn this this around. I only know one way to do it. I want to win now, too,” Tallon replied when asked about how the fans feel.

Now, to a degree, Tallon is on the clock. He has traded out his first player during a dismal season, and it’s a popular Panther. The frustration is seemingly growing, he doesn’t have much value in players he probably wants to get rid of, and there’s likely way too much of a bad season remaining, one filled with way too many 1-goal losses and “what ifs.” Whatever magic he possesses needs to be conjured to fix this mess somehow by dealing players, dipping down to San Antonio for Trocheck or Shore, or packaging some kind of deal that will make this team better.

Tallon’s reason for trading Versteeg was simple: It’s a performance-based business where results mean you either stay or go, and Kris wasn’t getting it done at all and was just basically filling a spot someone else could be playing. Now the onus is on Tallon to work the phones even harder and keep the Panthers from transforming into the league’s laughingstock.

Or he will go down trying.

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