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Versteeg on a learning curve Add to ...

It's certainly early days, but the Toronto Maple Leafs have wasted little time in making Kris Versteeg one of their main workhorses this season.

And signs of a major breakthrough, at least on the scoreboard, have yet to come.

Five games into the 2010-11 campaign, Versteeg sits fifth in the NHL in ice time among forwards, having logged 21 minutes 52 seconds a game, on average - more than all but Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Marleau and Paul Stastny prior to Tuesday night's games.

That sort of company is almost enough to encourage a round of that old Sesame Street staple, One of These Things (is Not Like The Others), which would be a fitting tribute to the only player in the league who has a Cookie Monster ball cap hanging in his locker every game.

"Buff had a Kermit one," Versteeg explained, referencing former Chicago Blackhawks teammate Dustin Byfuglien.

Being leaned on that heavily is a new experience for Versteeg, who was more of a bit part with Chicago the past two seasons. He admits all the ice time has been an adjustment and that it may take 10 games to learn how to play with the sort of workload generally reserved for the game's elite.

His rise to this point has certainly been a quick one.

Just 24, Versteeg's rookie season two years ago earned him a Calder Trophy nomination after an unexpected 22-goal, 53-point effort - numbers the Leafs are hoping he can exceed now that he's part of their top line alongside Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak.

But while Kessel has consistently found the back of the net this season, with five goals and two assists in the first five games, Versteeg has been relatively silent, putting up his only two points of the season in a lopsided 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators in the second game of the season.

Since then, he has had his opportunities - including a goal called back in a 2-1 overtime loss last Monday to the New York Islanders - but has just three shots on goal and a minus-1 rating.

"I feel a little snake bit," Versteeg said Tuesday after the Leafs practised for their next game, Thursday at home against the New York Rangers. "You get a lot of chances out there and set up a lot, but it comes with the territory [of playing on the first line]

"Anyone who tells you being snake bit doesn't suck is lying to you. It's tough to deal with sometimes when it's a long drought."

Off the ice, Versteeg has already established himself as one of the more popular Leafs - both with teammates and the media. He's as affable as they come in the league, talkative and unfiltered to the point that he is known to have let an off-colour comment or two loose in front of the cameras.

"Can you repeat that for a 6 p.m. show?" one reporter asked after Versteeg's postgame reaction to his disallowed goal Monday wasn't fit for air.

That type of youthful enthusiasm has been a staple of Versteeg's career going back to his junior days, where he bounced around - even playing defence for one 30-game stretch with the Red Deer Rebels - and never really ever looked like a future first-line NHLer.

He wasn't drafted until the fifth round, 134th overall by the Boston Bruins in 2004 because, Versteeg said, he was just 5 foot 7 and 140 pounds in his draft year.

He was happy to be taken at all.

"When I was getting drafted, before the lockout, little guys such as myself may not have been taken for the first three, four rounds," Versteeg said, rattling off names of other small players such as Buffalo Sabres prospect Tyler Ennis who have since been selected higher in the draft.

"Nowadays they really like to take chances on small guys it looks like. In the last four or five years, the draft has really changed. It's exciting to see."

Six years after that selection and already with his third NHL team, Versteeg said he always had to work hard in junior and then the minors to earn top-line minutes. Now getting them with the Leafs, he remains confident he can deliver the kind of production befitting his new-found ice time.

"I proved I could be a top-line guy in the AHL," Versteeg said. "I knew I could, too, if I was given the chance in the NHL. You've just got to believe it, not doubt yourself, doubt your abilities.

"This is now the new chance, the new opportunity to prove that I can be one of those top guys."

NHL ice time leaders (forwards)

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