TAMPA, Fla. -- Being benched would have driven Kris Versteeg mad when he was younger.
Not that Versteeg is OK with it now. It still stings whenever Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville makes him a healthy scratch in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s just that Versteeg knows how to handle it better and understands he can’t let lose grip of his emotions because he could still be called upon.
Versteeg was needed in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals because of an injury, and he was prepared. He had played just once in the Blackhawks’ previous 10 playoff games, but he never lost hope he’d be able to contribute again.
“It was really exciting,” Versteeg said Friday. “It’s something you always want to be a part of. You want to be part of big games and big moments. This is what I played for my whole life. I was fortunate enough to win a Cup and be a real big part of the team in 2010. This year it’s obviously a bit different, and everyone contributes in their own way. Hopefully, I can just keep contributing.”
Versteeg’s role has been altered since his first go-around with the Blackhawks. He averaged 17-plus minutes during the Blackhawks’ run to the 2010 Stanley Cup and was playing on the power play and penalty kill. He had six goals and eight assists in the 2010 playoffs.
When Versteeg returned to the Blackhawks via a trade with the Florida Panthers in November 2013, he realized things had changed. He wouldn’t be asked to play as large a role, and he was OK with that.
What troubled Versteeg during the 2013-14 season, though, was his inability to play like he once did. He had torn his ACL the previous season and pushed himself to get back on the ice. He later realized his right knee just wasn’t strong enough to recapture that old speed. He had ups and downs after joining the Blackhawks, and Quenneville lost faith in him in the playoffs and either sat him or played him very little as time went on.
The season wore on Versteeg mentally more than anything. He couldn’t hold off the negative thoughts.
“Last year, I definitely had a lot of doubt and questions,” Versteeg said.
Versteeg was motivated last offseason to erase those doubts. He dedicated himself to training and got his knee back to where it needed to be. He was noticeably faster when he arrived to the Blackhawks’ training camp.
Quenneville noticed the jump in Versteeg’s step and went back to giving Versteeg a significant role. Versteeg was placed alongside Patrick Kane and Brad Richards on a line early in the season, and the trio took off. Versteeg accumulated seven goals and 17 assists in 27 games in November and December.
“I thought he had a real good mindset when he came into camp, real good pace,” Quenneville said Friday. “When he has that pace, he's a tremendous player, good play recognition, can make plays as good as any player in the league. We get him like that, being comfortable and confident, playing with some pace, he can be really effective for us.”
Versteeg’s season was derailed when he blocked a shot with his left hand during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1. He suffered a fracture, required surgery and missed 16 games. His production wasn’t the same when he returned in February. He had five goals and two assists over the final 27 regular-season games.
Versteeg began this year’s playoffs in the Blackhawks' lineup and played in all six games of the first-round series against the Nashville Predators. But after notching just one point in the series, Versteeg was a healthy scratch for all four games of the second-round series against the Minnesota Wild and played just once in the seven games against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference finals.
Versteeg didn’t let himself get worked up over his situation this year or last year.
“You just learn patience,” Versteeg said. “Obviously, these last two years have been a lot different than what I’ve been used to. You understand that and do whatever it takes to win. Whenever you get your chance, you just got to make it count.”
“You don’t have to fight frustration. I just think you have to be ready. Anything can happen in the playoffs. Guys can get hurt, guys can down, you just got to be ready. It wasn’t much frustration as it was you just go to stay focused. I think maybe in my younger days you would have been a little more frustrated by the fact you can’t get out there.”
Kane has also noticed that maturation in the 29-year-old Versteeg.
“Talking to him recently, and being around him, I just think he wants to win,” Kane said Friday. “He wants to do anything he can to help the team to win. I think he wants to be a part of another championship team and have that added to his résumé.
“I’m sure it’s tough. He’s definitely skilled enough, good enough play to be in any other lineup in the league. You saw in Game 1, I thought he was one of our most effective players. He was good with the puck, physical, had some jump to his game and you noticed him every time he was on the ice. I think he’s a player that obviously has the skill and talent to make good plays. When he’s in the lineup, he just adds that much more to our team.”
Versteeg’s early-season play gave him confidence he could still play at a high level. He showed some of that during Game 1 as he was a plus-9 Corsi during 9:32 of even-strength ice time. As Versteeg enters Game 2 on Saturday, he’s looking to do more of the same. He doesn’t have to be the hero for the Blackhawks; he just wants to help.
“I know when I’m fit and I’m playing, I can still be a really good player in this league,” Versteeg said. “Maybe last year I had questions of doubt a bit at times. Right now, I have no doubt in my mind I can play.
“Now it’s more of a supporting role. You got to find a way and try to support those guys and help them get the best of their games so you can win a hockey game.”
If Versteeg can help the Blackhawks to a 2-0 series advantage Saturday, it will cap an already unforgettable week for him. He flew from Chicago to Toronto on Monday to witness the birth of his first child, went from Toronto to Chicago to Tampa to rejoin his teammates on Tuesday and played in Game 1 on Wednesday.
As grateful as he was to be there for his son’s birth, it was difficult for Versteeg to leave him just a few hours after he was born and even harder to be away the remainder of the week.
“It’s been real hard,” Versteeg said. “Thank god you have FaceTime nowadays and that stuff [so] you can see him. It’s really nice to be able to get on that and see him because you do miss him like crazy.”