Kris Versteeg walked into the scrum at Johnny’s Ice House with a smile on his face. He was back in a Chicago Blackhawks sweatshirt, back in a familiar locker room, back with the franchise he never wanted to be traded from in the first place.
“When (Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman) called me about getting traded to Toronto, I said if there's ever a chance, I would love to come back. It obviously happened,” said a happy Versteeg, minutes after finishing his first (return) practice with his former/current team.
Versteeg was as surprised as anyone that he was traded by the Florida Panthers late Thursday night. He was having dinner with a friend when he got the news.
“I didn't really know what was going to happen,” he said. “Florida, we were struggling a little bit and you heard that there might be something going on. But obviously when Dale (Tallon, Panthers GM) called me last night and told me I was coming back here, it obviously put a smile on my face.”
[MORE: Will Versteeg find new life in an old setting?]
It did the same for the Blackhawks, who remember what Versteeg could add to a lineup and figure he still can. Versteeg was on the Blackhawks’ third line with Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw at today’s practice, and that’s where he’ll get his start tomorrow night against the Nashville Predators.
“I think that it’s a perfect fit for us and for him as well,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “That line can be effective both sides of the puck very dangerous offensively. I think Steeger does a lot of good things with the puck and away from the puck, he just adds that to his game.”
Bickell and Versteeg go back to their AHL playing days when both were in Norfolk. Bickell and Shaw said Versteeg should enhance their line, which had a revolving door at that right-wing spot this season.
“Me and Shaw and (Versteeg’s) skill, hopefully we can get some good chemistry early,” Bickell said. “He has a lot of different things he can bring to the table. He can do penalty kill, power play, and he can do what it takes to help the team win. His skill level is up there.”
[RELATED: What do the Blackhawks lose in trade for Kris Versteeg?]
“He’s good offensively and works hard,” he said. “Me and Bicks are fortunate to have him on our line.”
Where Versteeg works in past that third-line assignment, the Blackhawks shall see. It’s no secret that the Blackhawks are still looking for answers on their penalty kill, which has been better at times but is still inconsistent. Versteeg could work up to that. The Blackhawks will also see how Versteeg keeps improving after a season-ending knee injury/surgery from 2012-13. Versteeg played 18 games with the Panthers, returning from that rehabilitation late in September.
“I think, long term, you look at it and you give a guy a year to get back to that level to where you’re at your peak. That’s probably the right timeline in hockey,” Quenneville said. “He’s not there yet but at the same time he’s playing. He said he’s starting to feel a lot better recently so that’s where he’s at.”
Versteeg is back. He never wanted to leave in the first place, always wanted to continue his career here. Now he can.
“I've had so many good times here, and you almost put that all in the rear-view mirror because you never thought you'd come back,” he said. “Now I'm back here. It’s now about getting back to playing hockey and trying to put my best foot forward every night to try to help the team in whatever way I can.”