CHICAGO (CBS) — The compelling comeback story of Kris Versteeg suffered a sudden setback.
Before Versteeg could even plan a New Year’s resolution, the Blackhawks’ winger was hit with a puck in the Winter Classic in Washington and suffered a broken left hand. A procedure to stabilize the fracture with pins made the recovery difficult.
Six weeks off the ice were grueling for Versteeg.
“You take some time when you do get hurt to pout,” said Versteeg, “and then you feel better and you’ve got to get back on the right track to where you play well again.”
Any competitor wants to play, not watch. It’s frustrating to miss games. For Versteeg, this is especially true.
With a great deal of work and commitment, Versteeg battled back from a torn ACL suffered in 2013 with the Florida Panthers. The Blackhawks took a chance in bringing him back that fall, but he was never the same, recording just 29 points in 63 games.
Comfort finally found Versteeg this season, who was on pace for a career year with 27 points in 34 games — nine goals and 18 assists. He meshed with center Brad Richards and winger Patrick Kane on the Blackhawks’ second line, known as the ‘PB&K line’ thanks to the trio’s success.
The setback put everything earned in jeopardy.
“I know what I need to do to get back to where I was,” Versteeg said. “Right now, it’s just about getting back to the game and getting into the pace. I know what I can do on the ice when I’m healthy and playing well, and that’s what I expect to do.”
Versteeg came up with the Blackhawks organization, making his debut in 2007 with a young Chicago team building for its future. He was to be a key chip for a championship run. His best seasons came in 2008 through the Cup run of 2010, where he recorded 97 points in two full, healthy seasons.
However, Versteeg moved on as part of Chicago’s cap-forced selloff in the summer following the championship. He was productive in three seasons split between Toronto, Philadelphia and Florida, but not quite the same without a loaded Blackhawks core.
Quenneville took a chance in bringing back Versteeg. Even after a down season in 2013-14, the Blackhawks still believed he could regain form. With a full offseason spent skating, not rehabbing, Versteeg became the player Chicago had hoped for.
“He was skating well prior to the injury,” said Quenneville. “He was playing the type of hockey we envisioned last year. He was back to what we saw in those 2010 years.”
Now, Versteeg has to pull another comeback He even acknowledged the difficulty of missing six weeks of action, and that there will be nerves the first time he takes the ice at United Center on Wednesday against Vancouver.
“I know he’s excited to pick up where he left off early in the season,” said Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp. “He’s a very confident player, still very confident off the ice. It’s just a matter of getting him some shifts, some opportunities and thing will work out for him.”
Added Versteeg: “When I’m on the ice, I feel confident. I feel like I can help the team when I am playing my game.”
Chicago has Versteeg slated on the third line, working with Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell. In each team skate, Quenneville has been impressed with what he’s seen.
These are just practices, though. Versteeg was on pace for a career year.
“Let’s hope he can recapture that pace right away,” said Quenneville. “I know he’s been skating well. It looks like he hasn’t missed a beat.”
If the Blackhawks have their wish, Versteeg returns from injury in old form, creating offense with pristine passes and smart shots. He’s the versatile veteran presence Chicago needs on the ice.
Versteeg found himself a year after rejoining the Blackhawks, with the benefit of patience offered from the organization. Early this season, Versteeg became the player he, his teammates and coach had hoped.
But enough with the waiting. Versteeg just wants to play.