The final home game of the season for the Red Deer Rebels ended in a fiery battle with the Calgary Hitmen, where tempers flared, and Red Deer, already ousted from the playoffs, set out to spoil Calgary’s push for the top spot in the division. Boston prospect Kris Versteeg didn’t pick up any points in Red Deer’s 2-1 shootout win, but more than held his own in a third period scrap with Calgary left wing Fredrik Pettersson (EDM). It was an entertaining bout by a forward known more for his skill than what he can do with his fists, but this is a season that has been anything but usual for the 19-year-old.
Versteeg began the season with the Kamloops Blazers, and played 14 games before he was traded to Red Deer in November of 2005. The trade took him by surprise, but he made the transition quickly, and enjoyed the opportunity to play for the highly-regarded head coach, Brent Sutter.
“Actually they made it fairly easy here,” Versteeg admitted. “Going to Kamloops was a little different because it was my first time away from home playing hockey. When I came here they made it seem like I was right at home. Red Deer’s a lot like Lethbridge in that there’s around 80,000 people and the cities are a lot alike, so it made the transition pretty easy.”
The Rebels struggled early on with inconsistent results that culminated in an extended losing streak during the month of January. It was a combination of trades, injury and inexperience that kept this young team searching for an identity, and when they came up short on defense, Versteeg’s coaches asked him to make the switch from forward to defense.
“We ran into some depth problems on the backend, so he was able to go back and play probably six weeks for us on the backend, and he played really well back there,” said Rebels’ assistant coach Jesse Wallin. “He’s got the ability to make plays with the puck and that really added an element to our back end. We sort of struggled through the first half of our season in getting the puck out of our zone and he really helped back there in that regard. When he plays the puck, he’s patient and he makes good plays.”
It was the first time in his career Versteeg had made the switch. He played roughly 30 games from the blue line, an adjustment that was strange at first, but in the end, offered him a new perspective on the game. The experience proved valuable, and Versteeg felt he walked away with a better awareness of what’s going on in the defensive zone, something that will only make him a more complete forward.
“I’d never really played defense before,” Versteeg admitted, then added, laughing, “I played it for my roller hockey team, when we had a roller hockey team, but that was it. I mean, you find yourself in new positions every day, but you just have to adjust to them and use your smarts out there on the ice. This is one of the best leagues in the world and if you’re going to survive you have to play smart.”
If anything, the switch is a testament to his versatility, and perhaps even his maturity. Versteeg made the transition and worked to help his team where it was needed most.
“I think he found a level of comfort back there and he’s a very confident player,” said Wallin. “He didn’t go back there and become apprehensive at all. He went very willingly, it was something we asked him to do and he put up no resistance. He wants to win, and he told us that if that’s what it takes for him to help the team, then he was more than happy to do it.”
Versteeg is a fiercely competitive player, something that can work both for and against him. There is little doubt of his motivation, but he still needs to learn how to use some of that emotion to his advantage. When the team is in trouble, he sometimes tries to do too much himself, rather than make use of his teammates, and as a result, finds himself in difficult situations.
“On one hand as a coach, you love to see that out of a player because he competes and he wants to win,” said Wallin. “At other times it hurts him, because he puts himself in situations where he can’t get out of it, and ends up turning the puck over.”
Versteeg is at a pivotal moment in his young career. If he’s offered a contract by the Bruins this Summer, he could turn pro and possibly play in Providence for the 2006-07 season; if not, he could play one more year in the WHL as a 20-year-old. The 2004 draft pick is hoping the Bruins will take a chance and sign him, but also maintains he would be happy to go back to Red Deer for another season.
“Boston told me things I need to work on, and those are the things I’ve been working on the whole season,” he said. “To play at the pro level I have to make my shot a little harder and I have to get more pucks to the net. I’m trying to do what the team tells me to do. I work out pretty hard in the offseason, and I think my trainer does a great job in getting me in great shape for the season. There is always room for improvement, but I really just keep doing the same thing over the next few years and hopefully I can turn pro by doing that.”
Now that the season is over, Versteeg can do little more than continue his training and wait for whatever the summer brings. If one thing is certain, it’s that his coaches would like to see him back in Red Deer for the 2006-07 season. He’d get the opportunity to take on more of a leadership role, and he’d also have another season to work on his game before going pro. Still, that does little to diminish the fact that a pro hockey career could be near. Versteeg attended his first camp with the Bruins in September 2005, an experience that left a lasting impression, and likely added a little more fuel to the fire.
“That was the greatest experience I ever had,” he said. “Stepping on the ice and being with Joe Thornton and Alexei Zhamnov, that was the most unbelievable experience. Watching how those guys play the game, they’re just so smart in every aspect. It was just a big eye opener and every time I stepped on the ice I tried to learn something from what those guys were doing. They didn’t know they were teaching me, but they were teaching me.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.