When Tampa Bay did not offer Carter Verhaeghe a qualifying offer in October, the Florida Panthers were ready to pounce.
A free agent just a month removed from being part of the Lightning’s Stanley Cup championship team, the 25-year-old Verhaeghe was looking for an opportunity.
The Panthers offered just that.
So far, Verhaeghe has taken the chance offered by the Panthers and is sprinting with it.
Friday night, Verhaeghe fed linemate Sasha Barkov with a pretty pass for the game-tying goal against Nashville.
Later in the period, Barkov returned the favor and Verhaeghe put in his team-leading sixth goal of the season, this one the difference in Florida’s 2-1 win over the Preds.
Through the first eight games this season, Verhaeghe — playing on the Panthers’ top line with Barkov and fellow newcomer Anthony Duclair — has six goals and nine points.
“It’s awesome,” Verhaeghe said. “The chemistry between me and Barkov … he’s a great player and is so easy to play with. We both like to play with speed and skill. We play pretty well together, Duclair too.”
Quite the start for both Verhaeghe and the Panthers.
Verhaeghe’s play has helped Florida off to one of its best starts in franchise history.
The Panthers go into Sunday’s game with the visiting Red Wings 6-0-2 and are the only team in the NHL without a loss in regulation.
If things feel fresh and new around the Panthers, Verhaeghe has been a big part of it.
“Right now, our team is doing well,” Verhaeghe said. “We haven’t lost a game in regulation, we have points in all of our games. I think it’s nice.
“Everyone is saying it’s a fresh start here. We have a lot of new guys who have come in and joined together. It’s going well so far, but it has only been however many games. There are still a ton more games, we have a lot more work to do and we have the opportunity to be better.”
Verhaeghe’s signing was one of five on the start of free agency, general manager Bill Zito looking for players with high upside at an affordable price.
It was bargain shopping, sure, but more of finding high-end items at a big discount.
Verhaeghe, who came into Saturday ranked tied for 11th in the NHL in goals, has a cap hit this season of just $1 million.
The Panthers are most definitely getting a lot of production for the price.
“He can play up-and-down the lineup with some upside,” Zito said in October when talking about signing Verhaeghe.
“That was something that we targeted. Our scouts worked very hard and spent a lot of hours looking for younger talent who might have some upside, might be buried, might be behind opportunities in the clubs they were on.
“We’re real excited to see what he can do and give him some opportunity to grow.”
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper praised Verhaeghe during last year’s run to the Cup — only with the Lightning’s riches at forward, there wasn’t a lot of playing time for Verhaeghe.
In 2018-19, Verhaeghe was in his second season with the AHL Syracuse Crunch, leading the league with 34 goals and 82 points.
The Lightning had him on the team the following year, but playing time was hard to find.
Verhaeghe scored nine goals in 52 games and appeared in eight of Tampa Bay’s 22 playoff games — including three in the Finals against Dallas.
The Panthers obviously saw something in his limited time in the lineup.
‘’Carter’s come a long way,” Cooper said during the Eastern Conference finals.
“I watched him in the Calder Cup playoffs last year, and if there was a guy that stood out to me, it was him. He’s not afraid to go into dirty areas, and he’s got sneaky good skill.”
In Florida’s opener against Chicago, Verhaeghe played 16:25 — over three minutes more than the most ice time he got in a single game with the Lightning the previous season.
His ice time has, for the most part, only gone up. Friday night, he played 19:07. On Jan. 28 in Columbus, he eclipsed the 20-minute mark.
“I have definitely gotten a ton of opportunity here,” he said. “It seems like they trust me here and you don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get. I’m trying to make the most of every opportunity I have here and it has been good so far.”
The last time the Panthers signed a Tampa Bay forward who was buried due to the Lightning’s forward talent came in 2016.
Jonathan Marchessault had bounced between the bottom six, the press box and the AHL.
For a while, Marchessault and his family were living out of a hotel in Tampa because he didn’t have the security for anything else.
The Panthers offered Marchessault the opportunity for some real playing time, a top-six role which he jumped all over.
Marchessault scored 30 goals for the Panthers in his one season here before being sent to Vegas at the expansion draft in a still-debated move by former GM Dale Tallon.
Verhaeghe appears to be following the same path with the Panthers — only, he doesn’t expect to be going to Seattle when the expansion draft comes back this summer.
The Panthers have Verhaeghe under team control for the foreseeable future. He is signed through next season and remains a restricted free agent after that.
While we’re only eight games into the season, if Verheaghe keeps this up, the Panthers are not only going to have to protect him from Seattle in the draft, but perhaps work on a long-term deal.
Again, it is way too early to be thinking about that.
But if this kind of production continues, the Panthers are going to want to keep Verhaeghe in South Florida for a long, long time.
“Last year, we obviously had such a great team and won the Stanley Cup,” Verhaeghe said. “For me, I am just trying to get better every year.
“There are a ton of great players to learn from there and I had a different role in Tampa. I just tried to learn everything I could there.
“I am trying to use the tools I learned there.”