Versteeg making the most of his first NHL season

by Chris Etheridge || AHL On The Beat Archive

versteeg-chi2_200.jpgTo say Kris Versteeg’s success in the National Hockey League this year was a pleasant surprise would be an understatement.

“I knew coming into training camp that I had a chance,” he said. “We had a meeting right before one of the last games of training camp and I didn’t really seem like I was in their plans. That was kind of a letdown. I knew I would have to get past that and really worked through it in the last couple of exhibition games.”

With just 11 games of NHL experience before the 2008-09 season, the Lethbridge, Alta., native was in a gaggle of Rockford IceHogs players who were trying to get one of the remaining spots on the Blackhawks.

But something he did in those final weeks of camp changed the minds of the brass with the parent club and then his performance at the start of the campaign certainly made the decision to keep Versteeg with the Blackhawks look like a brilliant one.

In his first 19 games with the Blackhawks in 2008-09, the third-year pro racked up 20 points (7g, 13a) skating in a play-making role.

“They put me in some good opportunities this year,” Versteeg said. “And now coming into the playoffs with these guys, it’s been exciting.”

Skating with players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Martin Havlat throughout the season, he finished fourth on the squad with 22 goals and 31 assists – and a Calder Memorial Trophy nomination – in 78 games.

“It’s been a fun transition,” he added. “I always knew that, given the chance, I could play and I was finally given the chance.”

That’s a feeling the 5-foot-10, 22-year-old has had for a while.

Versteeg had a modest career in the Western Hockey League, recording 167 points in 264 games between three teams. Drafted as the #134 overall pick by the Boston Bruins in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Versteeg said he thought he was on track to make his NHL debut with Boston as he worked his way through the AHL. But after 56 games with the Providence Bruins, a different kind of call came.

versteeg_200.jpg“I was having a good career there and I thought I was finally going to get my chance,” he said. “But then they came knocking and it turned out I was being traded.”

On Feb. 3, 2007, Versteeg was sent to the Blackhawks for winger Brandon Bochenski, who has skated in 128 career NHL games, mostly filling in as a call-up on five different teams over five professional seasons.

Making the transition to another team and another organization in the middle of the season was difficult for Versteeg. He wasn’t simply dropped into the offensive scheme as he had hoped.

“I didn’t think (the Blackhawks and then-Norfolk coach Mike Haviland) saw me as a scorer or a playmaker when I went there,” he said. “(Haviland) stuck me on the third and fourth line and I kind of had to rework my way up to playing on the top lines in the minors. About halfway through my time in Rockford, I did it and he’s been a big help for me and I couldn’t thank him enough.”

Versteeg finished third on the IceHogs in points per game with 49 (18g, 31a) in 56 contests. Then he put his talents on display in the postseason, leading the team with six goals and finishing with 11 points in 12 games in the 2008 Calder Cup Playoffs.

And now looking back, he gives his coach Mike Haviland, who stuck him at the bottom of the roster when he first showed up in Norfolk, a lot of credit for his success.

“He knows my strengths and weaknesses,” said Versteeg. “And I think not only for myself, but for (Troy) Brouwer and (Colin) Fraser, he’s been a really good guy to have on this squad.”

Once the current postseason run comes to an end for the Blackhawks, Versteeg and the organization will have some decisions to make. The winger is at the end of a three-year entry-level contract and will likely be looking for a new deal – and a big pay day – with the team that finally game him a shot.

With numbers like the ones he put up this year, he has deserved it.