It would be tempting for Kris Versteeg to say little has changed since he departed the Blackhawks amid the forced salary-cap purge that pushed him out after the 2010 Stanley Cup championship.
While he bonds with old friends and new faces on the present seven-game “circus trip,” the popular winger realized that time marched on in the three years since he left the 'Hawks.
“Everyone’s gained experience and age and wisdom,” said winger Versteeg, first of the big cadre of 2010 exiles to return to the Hawks, via a Nov. 14 trade from the Panthers.
“Even (coach Joel Quenneville) coming back, he’s got new things he puts out there and he sees,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot. I thought coming back I was going to know most of that. But you definitely don’t. Because that’s what good coaches do and good organizations always try to build on what they got.”
Versteeg returned to a franchise with a big target on its collective back — and a thanks from NHL headquarters. The second Stanley Cup title last June made the Hawks the envy of all opponents, but also made the team the virtual flagship franchise of the NHL as NBC’s first choice for nationally-televised games.
The 27-year-old Versteeg, a noted clubhouse cutup, was serious when he thought he might find his way back to the Hawks after being dealt to the Maple Leafs.
“I figured that might happen,” he said. “Me and (GM Stan Bowman) talked about it the day he traded me to Toronto. I told him if there was ever a way, I’d love to come back. Obviously there was a way. I didn’t foresee if for a few more years until I was a free agent. It was a great early Christmas present.”
Versteeg wishes he had come back one year earlier.
“I said it before, you’re jealous,” he said of missing out on the most recent Cup. “I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t jealous — they got another ring. But I’m jealous of every team that wins it when I don’t. Because I experienced it in 2010 and I know how much it took. The feeling was so great and you want to feel that every year. It was a lot of jealousy but I was very proud of a lot of friends here.”
Quenneville finds a way to fit in Versteeg from the second line on backward. It isn’t easy. He was part of the crucial checking-oriented third line with Andrew Ladd, both flanking center Dave Bolland, in 2010. The trio harassed to distraction the likes of the Canucks’ Sedin twins and other impact players. Now, the Hawks are deep enough in wingers than any regular shift is savored.
“I think everyone’s happy to have him here,” said Patrick Sharp, the Hawks winger with the most seniority. “Doesn’t matter if you were here in 2010 or not. Everyone knows what kind of a player ‘Steeger’ is. He’s a great guy for the locker room. He’s making guys laugh.”
Quenneville appreciates the older, steadier version of Versteeg.
“He’s got a nice set of hands and good play recognition,” the coach said. “Protects the puck well. He’s an opportunistic type of guy. We look for him to fit in defensively, do the right things, play the way we play as a group.”
“I’m starting to get into my prime,” Versteeg said. “Obviously, I’ve been injury-riddled the past couple of years with three different surgeries. It’s been a little tough go for me physically. But as a player, I feel a lot better than three or four years ago. I feel I’m starting to get my game back.”