When Kris Versteeg walked into the Chicago Blackhawks’ locker room after he was traded back here last month, it was like he never left.
“You do have a sense of comfort now with the familiarity with players. You get some chemistry back,” he said. “All in all, it’s been a very easy transition compared to when I had to go to other teams. Friendships have been created, which makes meeting the other guys a lot easier.”
Versteeg’s off-ice transition has been pretty seamless. The on-ice one hasn’t been bad, either. Since returning to the team in a mid-November trade from the Florida Panthers, Versteeg’s had some solid performances. He broke a 10-game goal drought with his power-play score against the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night, and his playing time has been steadily rising.
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Now ensconced in his old locker room, Versteeg is looking forward to seeing the Panthers when the Blackhawks host them on Sunday night. There are no hard feelings toward the Panthers. Versteeg has a great relationship with current Florida/former Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon, and he gets this is a business. Plus, since Versteeg always hoped to get back to Chicago, he’ll always be grateful that Tallon helped make that happen.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Versteeg, whose fellow former Blackhawks teammates Brian Campbell and Tomas Kopesky still play in Florida. “I don’t believe I have anything to prove against them. You look forward to playing against old teams.”
Versteeg has kind of/sort of found his niche with his old/new team. Originally penciled in as a third-line possibility, Versteeg’s bounced around the Blackhawks’ lineup some since returning, mainly due to teammates’ injuries. He’s gotten some power-play work, which led to last night’s rebound goal. Coach Joel Quenneville has liked Versteeg’s play, no matter where he’s been.
“We haven’t exactly found the right spot for him but you appreciate his versatility,” he said. “We might keep moving him around. Getting set with linemates and getting that one (set) spot may be healthy for everyone, but we like the options that he provides.”
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Versteeg’s second go-around with the Blackhawks is, nevertheless, quite different than the first. He was one of many young players the first time around, part of a Blackhawks organization that was trying to get out of the doldrums and back among the NHL’s elite. They did that in 2009-10, when they won the Blackhawks’ first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Now the Blackhawks are at the top, a confident franchise with confident players, and Versteeg is soaking that in.
“They’ve seen it all over the last three years,” he said of his teammates. “You can tell that guys don’t get down; you always believe you’re in every game and have a chance to win.”
On paper, it seems like Versteeg doesn’t face the same pressures with the Blackhawks that he may have had with the Panthers. Florida is a franchise struggling to gain footing, trying to regain some of the success it had in 2011-12 when it made the postseason for the first time in more than a decade. Then there was that four-year contract with a $4.4-million cap hit.
But personally, Versteeg said he applies the same pressure to himself regardless of team or role.
“I feel the same way when I play, whether it was when I was on a top line or relied on here to be on the second or third line or on the power play. I still carry myself the same way. I want the best out of myself,” he said. “The pressure is always there for me as an individual to perform, but it’s never been more there or less here.”
Things have changed with the Blackhawks; players are older, more mature. They’ve won. Some have gotten married and some have had children. But the friendships are there and, for Versteeg, so is the comfort level.
“When we started out we were all a bunch of kids, we were starting all of our careers together. Times have changed,” he said. “But it’s made for a better hockey team, all in all.”