If anyone on the Chicago Blackhawks needed the offseason, it was right wing Kris Versteeg.
The 2013-14 season wasn't one he'd like to remember too much, except for the fact he returned from major knee surgery. Otherwise, the versatile 28-year old had a season that could best be described as turbulent.
"Time off physically and mentally always helps," Versteeg said shortly after the Blackhawks opened training camp. "I wasn't good last year and you always try to bounce back from years like that and come back better, so it was nice to have time off."
He had two goals and seven points in 18 games with the Florida Panthers when he was traded back to the Blackhawks on Nov. 14, 2013, the team he helped win the 2010 Stanley Cup.
After reaching the 20-goal plateau in four of his previous six seasons, Versteeg was supposed to be the Blackhawks' biggest move, several months in advance of the NHL Trade Deadline. Instead, he finished the regular season with a total of 12 goals and 24 assists in 81 games and struggled to produce the way he once did for the Blackhawks.
Things worsened in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as Versteeg had one goal, three points and a minus-5 rating in 15 games. The Blackhawks' overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final was rock bottom.
Versteeg played right wing on the fourth line, didn't record a point or a shot on goal and played seven shifts totaling 3:44. He quickly transitioned to the offseason and kept a low profile until Chicago opened camp at the University of Notre Dame.
During the summer Versteeg got married and then got back to his usual offseason training regimen. It was quite a change from the way he had spent the previous offseason, when all he could do was rehabilitate his surgically-repaired knee.
Versteeg isn't interested in making excuses for last season, but it's clear that he feels the injury, combined with the disruption to his normal summer workouts, made things more difficult.
"I was really proud of what I did last year," Versteeg said. "I came back from that injury and still had almost half-a-point a game and played hard, as hard as I could, every night and tried to help the team win. I was brutal last year in the end stretch. I was actually proud of myself coming back from what I did and the timeframe in doing what I did, but you always want to be a bigger contributor and hopefully that's this season."
The Blackhawks are hoping that happens too. If Versteeg can return to the form he previously had with the Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers and Panthers, they could have an imposing third line, which was the unit Versteeg saw the most action with in 2010, when Chicago won a championship.
In the preseason Versteeg has played quite a bit at right wing on what's projected to be the Blackhawks' third line. Left wing Bryan Bickell and center Andrew Shaw, the other components, provide size and underrated skill. Versteeg, if completely healthy, should provide the speed.
If they can hound the puck, create good scoring chances and score some goals, it will take a lot of pressure off the Blackhawks' top lines. Versteeg said he feels up to the challenge.
"I just try to be a player that can play with any line at any time in any situation," he said. "It's just something I've always prided myself on, is trying to help the team in whatever way and use my speed and skill to get in there and set up guys and hopefully pot a few goals along the way too."
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville likes what he's seen from Versteeg thus far. Versteeg stood out during three days of scrimmages at Notre Dame's Compton Family Ice Arena, which validated what Versteeg had told him after last season ended.
"We had a good talk at the end of last year," Quenneville said. "I think he knew he wasn't the player he wanted to be. It took him probably a little longer than he was hoping for to come off that injury and probably do what he wanted to do, but I think he prepared himself this offseason. He looks like he's fit. He looks like he's got the puck a lot more. That's one of his strengths. I like what he's done to get excited about this year."