When the Stanley Cup playoffs began in August, we asked recently retired forward Kris Versteeg to delve into the NHL's new relaxed dress code policy, and critique which teams were (and weren't) allowing players to shine in the bubble. As the tournament winds down, we called Versteeg again, this time to analyze who has (and hasn't) been shining on the ice.
Versteeg played 15 seasons of pro hockey and won two Stanley Cups, both with the Chicago Blackhawks, which gives him a unique perspective watching this year's Stanley Cup Final between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning. Versteeg shared the small details that a seasoned NHL vet notices watching the games -- like Nikita Kucherov's obsession over changing his stick tape -- as well as what type of impact Steven Stamkos could have coming off a six-month absence, and why Tyler Seguin hasn't been more effective this summer. Plus, Versteeg highlights a player on both teams to whom you should be paying more attention.
You can follow Versteeg on Instagram (@stigalicious), where he often posts in-game analysis, or check him out on regular appearances for Sirius XM NHL Network Radio and Sportsnet. Here are six keys to the rest of the Stanley Cup Final, in Versteeg's own words:
Nikita Kucherov vs. his stick tape
"In the first series, I started wondering, why is Kucherov using [Ondrej] Palat's stick? It was the same tape job Palat was using; I was really confused. Why is Kucherov using white tape? He always uses black tape. Palat even had Kucherov's tape job, it looked like. And then they lost, and I noticed Kucherov was even going back and forth during shifts. I don't get how he's doing that. When you use white tape, you actually can't see your blade because it blends with the ice. When you use black tape, you can't see the puck as well because it blends with the puck. So for him to switch from black to white tape every shift has to be the wildest thing I've ever seen. I don't know how someone would do it, I really don't.
"It's definitely a superstitious thing. He probably gets a couple bad shifts with the black tape, then switches and gets a couple points with the white tape, and so on. In the first 10 minutes of Game 2, he had the collision with Jamie Benn, then fell into the boards. Then on the power play, he turns three pucks over -- two bad passes cross ice, then one goes off the skate in the middle and down -- and those are situations for guys who do that to switch the tape. A guy like that probably thinks it's the tape that's giving him a bad omen. He's so in his head about it.
"I was hoping one of his teammates got to him and told him, 'Stop worrying about your tape, you're leading the playoffs in scoring!' That's what I would have told him, if I were his teammate. 'Just play hockey, stop doing that to yourself.'
"But then, he actually didn't switch it after the first 10 minutes in Game 2. He went out there [with the same tape job] and they scored on the power play. Maybe he finally got the message."
What's going on with Tyler Seguin?
"I think [Alexander] Radulov and Benn should be together. Obviously [Radek] Faksa is hurt, but I'd rather have Faksa there than Seguin. Because Seguin, to me, isn't doing enough. Everyone's talking about how he's skating fast and skating hard, but skating fast and skating hard and being engaged are different things. I've played with a lot of guys who have skated fast and skated hard, but they're also engaged, meaning they're in battles and they're creating stuff for their teammates. I don't see Seguin as fully engaged, and I wonder if he's hurt. He might be hurt right now and he's scared to get fully engaged, get in battles, fight for puck possession and stuff like that.
"I love Benn and Radulov together, because they play so well, but I would like a fully healthy Seguin there, or someone else who would add a little more jam to that line. Because Benn plays with jam, Radulov does too. And their centerman needs to play good defensively to get the pucks to those guys. Seguin, when he's fully at it and fully engaged, he can do it. But at the moment, he's not. So I would like to see someone else there, or if Seguin could get a little more engaged defensively, it might drive his offensive play."
The impact of a potential Steven Stamkos return
"Before the last game, when the Tampa Bay power play was horrible -- they weren't doing any low plays, they were all up top -- I would have liked to have seen a righty doing one-timers. Even if Stamkos isn't 100%, he could still stand there and shoot on the power play and be effective.
"As for 5-on-5 play, I would worry about him, especially in the center role. Conditioning is a big thing, but timing even more than conditioning because these guys have been playing for two and a half months now, and their timing is key.
"Conditioning is big in the sense that top players take long shifts. Top players generally create offense in the last 20-30% of their shifts, because they're generally holding on to pucks and creating plays in that time frame, when they've worn down the opponent. So if their conditioning and timing isn't up to par, it's really hard to extend a shift and create offense in that last 20-30% of their time on ice in shifts. So that's where it worries me a bit.
"On the power play, there's not as much skating and battling, so he wouldn't have to worry about it."
A little appreciation for Captain America
"I want to talk about Joe Pavelski. He can't skate fast, right? He's not as fast as the other guys, but he can still skate. He's sturdy on his skates, meaning he can battle and stay on his edges really well. But his instincts are just out of this world. He reads pucks, and picks pucks off in the neutral zone, and takes them back on offense. He's not going to get to an area to make a pass, but he already knows where a guy is going, so he'll pick it off and make his play right away. So that frees him up room because the play has been made so fast.
"And also, to get pucks and tip pucks on net, from the high slot in front of the net, it's incredible stuff. If you're watching, you're like: 'This guy can't play in the NHL the way he skates right now,' right? But his instincts are the best in the NHL all over the ice. It's impressive."
Why I loved the Barclay Goodrow trade
"Barclay Goodrow is the guy I like on Tampa Bay, because I didn't know he was as skilled as he was -- and I've actually skated with him in the summertime. He can skate well and he's been playing some plays at a higher skill level than I thought he had. He's also taking a lot of faceoffs too, as a winger. I know he plays center too, but he's playing a majority at wing, and he's just been really impressive to me in all facets of his game. He's been a big addition for Tampa Bay.
"And it was a gutsy move to get him, trading a first-round pick. But if you're picking at 30, 31, those players generally don't pan out as well as you thought they would. So when it comes to first-rounders, you've got to covet them ... to an extent. But if you have a team that can win, you've got to trade that late first-rounder. Your second-rounder has just as much opportunity to turn out.
"Also, I'm sick and tired of the NHL always being a development league. It's a win-now league. These are a couple billion-dollar franchises, or at the very least a few hundred million. Stop using your NHL team for development; if you're a winning team, stop worrying about your 25th overall pick. Try to win the Stanley Cup. It should be a win-now league; that's why fans pay $500, $600, $700 to go to a game. You should try to win.
"I also wish GMs would start making calls on RFAs, start making other GMs to have to make tough decisions. Stop being buddy-buddy; enough buddy-buddy. If Jonathan Toews was the GM in Chicago one day, and I'm the GM in, say, Minnesota, I'm going after his top RFAs, and I don't care. Even if it's one of my best friends in the game, I'm going after him. That's what I want to see more of in this league."
How Tampa made adjustments to win Game 2
"In the first game, the Stars were really pushing the Lightning defense to make mistakes. Tampa Bay's D, they don't like to rim pucks too much or throw pucks away. They like to make plays. The Dallas forwards were really pressuring the Tampa Bay D to give up the puck. Tampa Bay doesn't like to make the simple play, though they do it better than they did last year. But that's why Dallas dominated in Game 1. The Lightning D were turning pucks over.
"There is a weakside play when you're trying to get away from pressure, where you go from D to D, and you let the puck keep going around the board to the forwards. What that's doing is bypassing two players with the puck, without having to make a play really. So you saw Tampa Bay do some plays like that to bypass pressure in Game 2. And also, they scored early, they got confident on the power play, because they actually did their first low play in like a month. [Alex] Killorn took it to the net, and that started putting stuff in Dallas' brains, like 'maybe they will take it to the net now.' Then they moved the puck up top and cross ice on a bumper play; sometimes that confusion can cause those plays to open up. All in all, Dallas was on their heels in Game 2, especially after that goal because Tampa Bay's confidence grew and they did the things they didn't do in the past, which got Dallas thinking about it."
"In order to break their 0-for-14 power-play slump, Palat went on the point on the other side; usually Mikhail Sergachev is there. I felt Sergachev was a little too stagnant there. He would shoot sometimes, but he was really trying to force passes to Kucherov. For me, I wanted a righty to go there, because they weren't using any low plays. If they're only going to keep the puck up top, they might as well shoot it.
"The good thing Palat does better than Sergachev there is he drags that forward and gets him to put his stick on the inside of the ice. Palat will not pass it to Kucherov. He goes behind his back or will do a subtle forehand pass to Hedman. And what that does is it gets the middle forechecker to come up. And that is where Hedman will fake the shot, then go over to Kucherov. Now two guys are caught out of position, and that's when Kucherov can either go cross ice back to Palat, or he can bump it into the middle to Brayden Point, where Point has scored that goal.
"So Palat was giving a little more of a simpler look, but one that would drag that forward a little out of position on the strong side, the guy that's supposed to be checking Palat on the penalty kill. So these were simpler plays, but high-skill plays, that freed up Kucherov to do a little bit more."