Returning to the United Center for the first time since he won the Stanley Cup with his now-former Chicago Blackhawks teammates, Florida Panthers forward Kris Versteeg told reporters that the experience of seeing the championship banner hanging from the rafters "hits home. You spend so much time and effort as an individual to get to the NHL and then win the cup. It’s emotional looking at that..."
Of course, the reason it took almost two years for Versteeg to see the lasting symbol of his work is because that Blackhawks team was a ticking salary cap timebomb. Cup or no Cup, the team would have to be torn apart in the 2010 offseason, and Versteeg was one of several Blackhawks to be shown the door.
Pressed further, Versteeg shared his regret that winning team was broken up -- particularly after watching the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins remain intact and performing so well during this season's title defense:
"You always think about where a team could've gone," said Versteeg, who has scored 17 goals and plays right wing on the Panthers' top line with Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann. "Obviously, you look at Boston and the confidence they gained as a team after they won and how much better players get as they get older. We were still young and were separated at a young age."
He quickly caught himself, however, realizing that what happened can't be changed and time only moves in one direction.
"Obviously there are a lot of things you still think about, but you've got to move on and play wherever you are now," Versteeg said. "I'm a Panther now and I've had nothing but great things going on for myself here and as a team here."
The unspoken irony here is Versteeg's current boss with the Panthers, general manager Dale Tallon, is the same guy who constructed that Blackhawks team in such a way that it had to be broken up. Versteeg's Blackhawks pals "were separated at a young age" because Tallon was unable to put them together with better foresight. Outside critics could see it coming, as Tallon's moves included some shortsighted contracts, some risky overpays (Cristobel Huet) and in one case, a famous botching of qualifying offers.
With a cap-forced implosion looming, the Blackhawks relieved Tallon of his GM duties before that Cup-winning season -- so the actual deconstruction of the many Versteeg-like parts (Dustin Byfuglien was another, as was current Winnipeg Jets captain Andrew Ladd) was carried out by his successor Stan Bowman.
Landing on his feet in Florida, Tallon re-assembled the Panthers this offseason -- again with a binge of long-term contracts and cap commitments, again to a mix of raves and criticism.
Some argue the Panthers and Tallon should have the last laugh, as the team is in playoff position (albeit by a hair) at this season's mid-way point. But the chief criticism of Tallon's offseason moves, including acquiring Versteeg again, was not that he didn't improve his team, but that he did it while assuming unnecessary long-term risk. Just like he did with the Blackhawks.
For the Hawks, the risk with mostly young players at least paid off with a Stanley Cup. For the Panthers, the risk may only yield a playoff appearance -- no small result for a franchise and fan base that has gone a decade without one.
But if in a few years Panthers management finds it has too much money tied up in too many declining players -- or worse, if Tallon gets careless with the cap again -- Versteeg (a restricted free agent this summer due another raise) will know why: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.