Versteeg back and contributing with Blackhawks
|Versteeg warms up before facing the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 19 (Getty Images).|
After he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs following the Chicago Blackhawks' 2010 Stanley Cup championship, Kris Versteeg had a message for the guy who orchestrated it.
He told Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, "If there's ever a chance to come back, I would love to come back and play here."
Bowman, in turn, made it happen three years later. Following the Chicago Blackhawks' 5-4 shootout win against the Phoenix Coyotes on Nov. 14 at United Center, he announced a surprise trade with the Florida Panthers that brought Versteeg back to the Windy City.
Even Versteeg was stunned.
"I thought if I did come back, it would be through free agency one day," Versteeg said after the Blackhawks' morning skate Tuesday, prior to facing the Dallas Stars at United Center (8 p.m., NBCSN, TSN2). "I figured it'd be later in my career, well into free agency, but obviously it's before that."
The timing was both unpredicted and impeccable.
It took the hockey world by complete surprise and happened at a perfect time for the Blackhawks, who used Versteeg immediately among their top-six forwards. Marian Hossa, Chicago's top right wing, missed the next three games with a lower-body injury and then missed two more during a seven-game road trip because of a personal matter back in Chicago.
Hossa's back now, but Versteeg is still helping the Blackhawks stay afloat through another issue. Power forward Bryan Bickell (lower body) has missed six straight games, so Versteeg is keeping his spot warm at left wing on the third line.
Perfect timing for the trade?
"It kind of seemed like that," said Versteeg, who has a goal and three assists since coming back to Chicago. "I know what I was brought in here to do … to try and fill roles and fill spots when other guys go out or guys aren't feeling well or playing well. It's just to do my best at whatever opportunity I'm given."
It's the same role he played for the Blackhawks during their championship run in 2010, bouncing from line to line, chipping in wherever needed. The only difference is Versteeg is more experienced playing key roles. After being traded from the Philadelphia Flyers to Florida on July 1, 2011, Versteeg ascended to the top line for the Panthers and helped them qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2011-12 with 23 goals and 31 assists in 71 games.
A knee injury cut his 2012-13 season to just 10 games and the Panthers traded him 18 games into this season before he could fully bounce back.
"When I left [Chicago], I wanted to expand my role," Versteeg said. "I played a lot of minutes when I played here before, but when I left I tried to be more of a top guy in different areas. In Florida, the year I was healthy and got my chance, we got to the playoffs and had a pretty good season. That was exciting for me to play the big minutes and try to be one of those go-to guys. So, I've kind of learned how to play in different roles and scenarios."
It's experience that Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville loves to have at his disposal. Prior to the trade, the Blackhawks were shuffling a number of rookies into and out of roles on the third and fourth lines. Now, even with the recent injuries, Versteeg has helped add some consistency to the mix.
"It gives us a good fit," Quenneville said. "We know what we got in the player and he gives us some versatility in where you're going to use him. He can play either wing and any line. He can play in all situations, as well, so that versatility really comes in handy with a guy that has some skill and can make plays. It gives a lot more options making lines and putting it together."
Versteeg can also bring something to either of the Blackhawks' special teams units, not to mention his addition to the locker room. His sense of humor, outgoing personality and familiarity with most of his new teammates has made the transition period a lot easier and Florida is also paying half of his salary, which reduces the hit on the Blackhawks' salary cap number to a reported $2.2 million a year.
"He's versatile, he can play on pretty much any line, penalty kill and power play," said Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, a good friend of Versteeg. "To think that when [Bickell] does come back, you see a really good third line developing there with Bickell, Versteeg and [Andrew Shaw]. I think it was a great move."
So does Versteeg.
He does have something to prove after knee surgery, but it's clear what he values most. Now that Versteeg back with the Blackhawks, a team that sits on top of the NHL standings with 44 points, he already has the vision of winning another Stanley Cup entrenched in his mind.
"To be able to come here and get another chance to win another Stanley Cup, I'll play whatever role there is," he said. "You know your numbers might not be there and you know other things might not be there, but you also know that you're contributing to a successful team. That's all that matters to me."