With the Chicago Blackhawks
riding up against the salary cap, Kris Versteeg
could see the painfully obvious truth -- there was a pretty good chance he was going to be heading out of town before the start of free agency.
Versteeg's concerns were proved valid when, just three weeks after winning a Stanley Cup, the 24-year-old forward, along with left wing Bill Sweatt
, was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs
in exchange for forwards Viktor Stalberg
, Chris DiDomenico and Phillipe Paradis.
The deal was just one of the many executed by Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, who also parted with forwards Dustin Byfuglien
, Ben Eager
, Colin Fraser
and defenseman Brent Sopel
not long after the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup since 1961.
But Versteeg knows it's just part of the business.
"A lot of guys talked about it at the end of the year. That was a very closely knit team," Versteeg said during a conference call Thursday. "I think there's a lot of sad guys in the last few weeks. You see guys like Buff moving on, very character guy. And Eager and Sopel and Fraser and now myself and you never know who else might go next. It's pretty crazy, but you just got to move and take the positives you had in Chicago.
"Just talking to Stan, it's not because of my ability or anything like that. I went out there every night and played my hardest and helped produce for a pretty darn good team. You got to know nowadays that with so many good teams and so many teams so close to the cap that you got to be ready to move on if your name is called. It's not always going to be about your ability. It's got to be about what they believe is best for their team and for whatever team is looking at you, you got to believe they traded for you because they wanted you."
Going from what looks like a perennial contender to a team that hasn't been able to get out of its own way in recent years might be hard to swallow, but Versteeg sees something in the Leafs that gives him -- and maybe Toronto fans -- some hope.
"It feels maybe like the Blackhawks a couple years ago and we're all coming into our own, a young team looking to break away into the League," said Versteeg, referring to how just three years ago the Blackhawks failed to reach the postseason. "I think the Leafs are going in that direction right now and it feels good. I'm comfortable coming into the locker room and I'm excited about being a Toronto Maple Leaf. It's the biggest hockey market in the world, and who wouldn't want to play in it?
"I don't know what would happen in Toronto if they won a Stanley Cup. The roof would fall off the place. It would be absolutely unbelievable to win a Stanley Cup with the Toronto Maple Leafs
Versteeg had 20 goals in 2009-10 and 22 the previous season, his first two in the League, and he did so while playing a supporting role with the talent-laden Blackhawks. Last season, Versteeg averaged just 15:43 of ice time per game while stars Patrick Kane
, Jonathan Toews
, Marian Hossa
and Patrick Sharp
played the major minutes.
As a potential top-six forward and with more minutes with Toronto, a 30-goal season isn't out of the question.
"Obviously it's something you think you could get, but it comes with more ice time and bigger roles," Versteeg said. "As myself, playing behind a lot of players in Chicago, and maybe going to be able to go and play a little more minutes on the PP or things like that. It could help with added production. You don't quite know until you get there, but I've always believed I can produce and I can play hard every night and if I'm not scoring, then I'm going to help on the penalty kill or help by giving the team energy. But I do believe I can
help produce more."
Versteeg will also bring something that the Leafs desperately lack -- Stanley Cup experience. The only other Leafs on the current roster who have raised the Cup are goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere
and defenseman Francois Beauchemin
, both with Anaheim in 2007. As a matter of fact, Versteeg will technically be a Leaf when he spends his day with the Cup -- this Saturday -- in his hometown of Lethbridge, Alta.
"It teaches you so much mentally about the game and how hard you can push yourself at those moments and the emotional upswings and downswings," Versteeg said of playing 39 playoff games the past two seasons. "One minute you're up, one minute you're down and then next thing you know, you're down again and you score a shorthanded goal that puts you into overtime and you win in overtime. It's a roller-coaster ride, but you learn from it and you got to try to stay as even-keeled as you can.
"You got to learn that you have to put bad games and losses behind you. Who cares what anyone says about you. It's not about what anyone says. It's about the guys in the room and it's about the guys who are about each other."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo