Once a castoff, Panthers' Verhaeghe now playing a starring role in NHL playoffs

·4 min read
Floirida Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe had 12 points in six games in the first round of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Floirida Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe had 12 points in six games in the first round of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Carter Verhaeghe was a castoff. Chosen in the third round of the 2013 NHL draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Verhaeghe bounced between the AHL and ECHL and was traded twice before he reached the NHL.

That was then. Now, Verhaeghe is among the leading scorers in the NHL playoffs with 12 points in six games, including the series clinching, overtime winning goal for the Florida Panthers in their opening round win over the Washington Capitals.

During the regular season, Verhaeghe, who is signed to a bargain $1 million contract, scored 24 goals and 55 points. In the shortened 2020-21 season, Verhaeghe scored 18 goals and 36 points in only 43 games. It’s a rapid ascension for a player who as an NHL rookie two seasons ago had only 13 points as a member of the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Even on his current Panthers, the team that finished first overall in the regular season, it wold be easy to ignore Verhaeghe. The Panthers this season featured four 30-goal scorers, including Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart and Anthony Duclair.

The depth of Florida’s forward group, however, is exactly what makes Verhaeghe so difficult to defend. The Toronto product often faces secondary defensive pairings and has capitalized this postseason, including a five-point night in Game 5 and a goal and an assist, including the overtime winner, in Game 6 of the opening round. In fact, he scored three game-winning goals in the series, including two in overtime.

As Florida Panthers interim head coach Andrew Burnette said of Verhaeghe’s Game 6 performance, one in which he was questionable to even play after suffering an injury in Game 5, Verhaeghe “dug in deep and found a way to get it done.”

The same could be said for Verhaeghe’s entire career.

After being selected 82nd overall by Toronto back in 2013, Verhaeghe was traded in 2015 while still in major junior, being sent from the Leafs to the New York Islanders, along with four other minor league players, in exchange for Michael Grabner. Seeing Toronto’s current salary cap issues, and Verhaeghe’s development, it’s undoubtedly a trade they’d like back.

With the Islanders organization, Verhaeghe bounced between the ECHL’s Kansas City Mavericks and the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

“As a player, you obviously want to play in the NHL, and if not the NHL, you want to play in the AHL,” Verhaeghe told Florida Hockey Now about that time.

“When I got sent to [Kansas], that’s when it got kind of tough, but just like everything, there’s a lot of things that you can’t control in hockey. I think me just focusing on myself, the process, and what it’s going to take for me to get better every day. That’s how I stayed focused.”

Despite his focus, the Islanders saw Verhaeghe as expendable and traded him to Tampa Bay for Latvian netminder Kristers Gudlevskis, who after appearing in three NHL games in his career, never saw the NHL again and is now playing in Slovakia.

As he has during this playoff season, Verhaeghe “dug in deep and found a way to get it done,” finally earning a chance with Tampa.

In his first AHL campaign, however, Verhaeghe was placed on waivers by the Lightning. Unclaimed, he went to the AHL's Syracuse Crunch and put up two strong campaigns before earning an NHL spot with Tampa in 2019-20.

Verhaeghe was playing on one-year contracts, his final with Tampa worth $700,000. Following the 2019-20 season, Tampa did not re-up Verhaeghe, allowing Florida to grab the the 6-foot-2 winger on a two-year, $2 million contract, which expires after this season. With Florida, his opportunity finally emerged.

“He had to earn it,” Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette told Florida Hockey Now earlier this season. “He had to grind through the AHL a little bit to prove how good he was, he didn’t get those opportunities right away, but he had to continue to keep grinding and grinding and keep getting better.”

Verhaeghe has arrived in a big way, which was rewarded by the Panthers this season when they extended the 26-year-old for three more seasons at $4,166,667 per year. If he continues his current play however, that amount will still seem like a bargain.

From expendable depth piece to an indispensable playoff star, Verhaeghe will soon be a household name, and the Panthers hope that his success will also include inscribing his name onto the Stanley Cup this June.

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