Kris Versteeg’s heart was always with Blackhawks
BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter November 15, 2013 2:00PM
The facts: 7 p.m., CSN, 720-AM.
Updated: December 17, 2013 6:08AM
Exactly three weeks after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup on June 9, 2010 — a date that Kris Versteeg permanently has etched into the skin on his right arm — general manager Stan Bowman called Versteeg and told him he had been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of many salary-cap victims that summer.
Versteeg was crushed but understood. He also wanted to put something in the back of Bowman’s mind.
“I said if there’s ever a chance, I would love to come back,” Versteeg said Friday, donning a bright red Hawks hoodie about 14 hours after he was reacquired by the Hawks in a trade that sent Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen to the Florida Panthers. “It obviously happened, and I’m really excited about it. I’ve got hopefully a lot of years ahead of me, and hopefully it’s as a Blackhawk. It’s where my heart is.”
Versteeg left Chicago, but Chicago never left Versteeg. As he bounced from the Leafs to the Philadelphia Flyers to the Panthers, with whom he spent the last two-plus seasons dealing with a knee injury and a lot of losses, the unforgettable times he had with the Hawks were never far from his mind, much as he tried to move on.
He’d see his old teammates every summer. He’d watch as guys he came up with in the Hawks’ system became fixtures. And he looked on with mixed emotions as so many of his friends won a second Stanley Cup this past spring.
“Obviously you’re a little jealous,” he said. “Because you’d like to be there, too, and helping.”
Now Versteeg gets that chance. Despite his struggles this season — just two goals and five assists in 18 games with the Panthers, coming off knee surgery — the three-time 20-goal scorer instantly fills several needs for the Hawks. He skated on the right wing of the third line with Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw in practice, and he’ll be in that spot Saturday in Nashville. He also is a proven performer on the power play and the penalty kill, two areas of concern for the Hawks.
Panthers general manager (and former Hawks GM) Dale Tallon told reporters that the move — in which the Panthers swallowed half of Versteeg’s $4.4 million contract for the next two-plus season — was strictly performance based. He said Versteeg had been “inconsistent” and “trying to do too much, trying to carry the burden of the big contract.”
But Hawks coach Joel Quenneville knows what Versteeg can do — he had 42 goals and 55 assists in two full seasons with the Hawks — and thinks that, even as he works his way back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, he can be a valuable contributor.
“Nice acquisition for us,” Quenneville said. “Steeg is very versatile in what he brings to our team. He can play all positions up front. You can play him in all situations — PP, PK regular shift. Pretty handy guy and very useful. We like what he brings to the team.”
And to the dressing room. The laid-back Versteeg, who famously rapped at the Hawks’ 2010 parade, was a favorite of fans and teammates. On Friday, his locker stall was next to Shaw’s.
“They’re going to talk each other’s ears off,” Bickell said.
Versteeg was relatively mellow, probably because he was going on 30 minutes of sleep after catching a 6 a.m. fight to Chicago. And maybe because he’s still a little shocked that after a few tough seasons, he’s right back where he always wanted to be.
“It’s still a lot to process,” he said. “I’ve had so much good times here, and you almost put that all in the rear-view mirror because you never thought you’d come back.”
NOTE: Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin will make his first start Saturday since Oct. 29, when he was pulled after giving up four goals on 22 shots against the Ottawa Senators.