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Carter Verhaeghe: Long road to the Florida Panthers has been worth it

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Carter Verhaeghe celebrates a goal with his Florida Panthers teammates during the 2021-22 NHL season. // Roger Lee Photographer (561) 866-2000

Carter Verhaeghe did not take any shortcuts to get where he is right now — as one of the top offensive players on one of the best teams in the NHL with the Florida Panthers.

Since joining the Panthers, Verhaeghe has 33 goals and 39 assists for 72 points in 87 games.

He has been one of the top scorers on the team since getting here, but it certainly was not a short road in finding a home with the Panthers.

“He had to earn it,” Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette said.

“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 most definitely put in the work.

He put in thousands and thousands of miles on countless buses.

He has earned everything he is getting right now.

After being selected in the third round of the 2013 NHL Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was traded to the New York Islanders on Sept. 17, 2015 in a five player-package that was used to acquire Michael Grabner.

When he got there, he never exactly found a true fit within the organization.

Verhaeghe split time between the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers and the ECHL’s Missouri Mavericks — making the four-hour flight across the country each time he got the call from 2015-17.

“The travel was kind of toxic, and obviously it’s part of the job, but you kind of learn to deal with it,” Verhaeghe told Florida Hockey Now.

The travel was the least of Verhaeghe’s concerns. The end goal was getting to the NHL — and getting out of the ECHL meant being a step closer.

“As a player, you obviously want to play in the NHL, and if not the NHL, you want to play in the AHL,” Verhaeghe said.

“When I got sent to Missouri, 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.”

Chris Gibson, who was part of the five-player package that sent Verhaeghe to New York, saw that work ethic in him from Day 1.

“You can go two ways if you get sent down to the minors, nobody wants to be in the [ECHL], especially when your goal is to play in the NHL,” Gibson told Florida Hockey Now.

“I think he did it well. He used that time well, to go down there to use that as fuel to want to make it to the NHL, and he kept on working and working and working. …

”But once he got a chance in the NHL, he didn’t want to get sent down. Now he’s a Stanley Cup champion and a superstar for the Florida Panthers.”

Carter Verhaeghe gets a hat trick as Panthers win in Dallas

Gibson, who is currently a goaltender for Florida’s AHL affiliate in Charlotte, was Verhaeghe’s roommate when the two played in Bridgeport.

“He’s a great guy. In the minors with the Islanders, we lived with each other for a year, so I can’t say he’s a bad guy,” Gibson said.

He’s seen a lot of growth in his former roommate since he arrived in South Florida.

“He works hard off the ice, even more now than I saw in the minors, believe it or not,” Gibson said. “He really wants to stay on top of the game and even now if he’s one of the superstars on Florida, he still wants to keep pushing forward and getting better every day, which is a great thing.

“I think that’s just how Florida is, like even Sasha wants to get better every day. I think every player there wants to get better every day. I think it’s a great thing to see that is what Verhaeghe is doing there.”

It was apparent during that time that Verhaeghe was too good for the ECHL.

In his stints with the Mavericks over his two-season span, he had 57 points (20 goals, 37 assists) in 36 games.

Yet, the organization gave him limited opportunities at the AHL level.

Despite that, he managed to put up 44 points (22 goals, 22 assists) in 75 games in Bridgeport.

Verhaeghe finally got his opportunity to prove himself in the 2017-18 season after he was sent to the Tampa Bay Lightning organization in a trade for Kristers Gudlevskis.

“I was really lucky to get traded from New York to Tampa. They gave me a really good, a shot to play and get good minutes,” Verhaeghe said.

Gudlevskis never panned out for the Islanders, playing 37 games with Bridgeport while posting a 12-16-7 record with a .897/2.83 before spending the rest of his career in Europe.

Verhaeghe worked wonders for Tampa.

Carter Verhaeghe giving Florida Panthers serious bang for their buck

He finally got his opportunity to play big-time minutes with the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, but not without earning it first.

When he first got to Syracuse,  he didn’t get those big minutes right away — he was on their fourth line and was a healthy scratch at times.

“Carter was one of the guys who really bought in. He wanted to play early on and he wanted to be a part of the lineup,” Syracuse coach Benoit Groulx told Florida Hockey Now.

“He asked me why and I told him why and I think he ended up having good practice habits, he was more relentless on the puck.”

He took that advice and ran with it.

By the end of his first season, Verhaeghe was one of the top players on the team.

“When you watch him on the ice, you can see the skills he has as a skater and you also see his shot,” Groulx said.

“I think what he had to do, and I told him in a discussion we had together, was how he can be more relentless on the puck, how he can become more of an inside player challenging defensemen with his speed and his skills.

“I really think that difference, becoming a second-effort hockey player, made his talents surface and made him a special player at our level.”

After putting up 48 points in 58 games in the regular season, Verhaeghe was a crucial part of the team’s playoff run.

While the defending Eastern Conference champion Crunch were ousted in a sweep by the Toronto Marlies, Verhaeghe had a coming-out party in the playoffs, putting up eight points (one goal, seven assists) in seven playoff games.

During the 2018 offseason, Tampa decided to bring Verhaeghe back on a one-year $650,000 deal for the 2018-19 season.

“I owe a lot of it to Groulx,” Verhaeghe said. “He definitely made me a better player.”

Groulx believes that all of the credit should go to Verhaeghe.

“For me, the credit goes to him, because there’s a lot of work behind all of that, and sometimes, when people go to the game, they only see the final product,” Groulx said.

“But I think Carter has put a lot of work in his shot, has a lot of pride in his work ethic, and that’s probably why he’s so successful.”

That following season, Verhaeghe proved himself yet again, posting 82 points in 76 games,

He was also the lead man on a Crunch power play that ended with the fifth-best power play percentage (20.9 percent) in the AHL.

“We used him on the power play as a flank from his left shot, and I thought he was very comfortable there,” Groulx said.

“We had one of the best power plays in the league that year, with him being there, it gave him a lot of confidence scoring goals and he was one of the best players on our team.”

While the Crunch were ousted in a 3-1 first-round series loss to Bill Zito’s Cleveland Monsters, Verhaeghe continued to prove he was a playoff performer, putting up six points (one goal, five assists) in the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs.

Verhaeghe also earned himself yet another one-year deal for the 2019-20 season.

This time, he got his chance at the NHL level.

“Nothing’s too big for him, he’s not fazed by it, he’s not intimidated by any situation on the ice,” Groulx said.

“He loves playing the game, he plays the game the right way, he loves having the puck, he wants to shoot, he wants to score, he wants to be a difference maker. So those guys, I want them on my team. It’s simple, he’s a good player.”

On Oct. 3, 2019, he made his NHL debut against the Panthers and he never looked back.

“He’s always been a crafty player, which is great,” Gibson said. “Then him going from the Islanders to Syracuse for a little bit, which was good for his game too. And then getting the call-up with Tampa and getting to play his game a little bit more, but I’ve always thought [Verhaeghe] was a really, really good player.”

In 52 games that season, he scored 13 points (nine goals, four assists) prior to the NHL shutting down its season due to Covid-19.

When the NHL re-booted the season and started the Playoff Bubble, Verhaeghe and the Lightning were there to compete for the Stanley Cup.

And won it.

Although Verhaeghe only played in eight games during that playoff run, notching two assists in the process, it was a learning process for him.

“You learn from all of those players,” Verhaeghe said. “I was there all year and I learned a lot from a lot of special players for sure.”

One of those players, who Verhaeghe picked up the most from, was Brayden Point.

“Just the way he plays; how fast he plays the game, how he does everything so quick and turn on a dime, he was my favorite player to watch for sure,” Verhaeghe said.

Point saw that development in Verhaeghe throughout his time in Tampa.

“I think his game as a whole developed,”  Point told Florida Hockey Now.

“Understanding his time and space at the NHL level, Carter thinks the game extremely well. He was always skilled, extremely fast and can make plays. Being able to do that once you make the jump can be difficult and I think in his time here he was able to learn how to play his dynamic game in the NHL.”

Weeks after winning the Stanely Cup with the Lightning, Verhaeghe signed a two-year, $2 million deal with cross-state rival Florida.

With the Charlotte Checkers shutting down their season due to Covid-19, the Lightning ended up sharing the Crunch with the Panthers for the season.

When asked if he thought he would see Carter in Syracuse again after the arrangement was made, Groulx laughed.

“Not a chance,” he said. “We would have loved that, but we knew.”

Groulx said he figured Verhaeghe was ready for whatever opportunity came.

And he was.

“I came to Florida with no expectations,” Verhaeghe said, “I was in a different role with Tampa because the team was so deep and talented, I was ready for the opportunity when I came.”

Florida panthers

Carter Verhaeghe and Sasha Barkov lead the Florida Panthers up the ice — a familiar site for opponents the past two seasons. // Roger Lee Photographer (561) 866-2000

What happened next was something special.

Almost immediately, he was paired with Panthers captain Sasha Barkov on the top line and the two found instant chemistry.

“Playing with Barkov is awesome, he’s a great player,” Verhaeghe said. “We feed well off of each other, he’s so strong on the puck and he makes unbelievable plays and passes and we like to play the same kind of game with holding onto the puck, making plays, getting open, so I think it works well.”

Barkov agrees.

“Ever since we were put on the same line, it just clicked right away,” he said. “We just know each other really well. Carter is a really good player, high skill, sees the ice really well, he has a great shot and a great mindset,”

By season’s end, Verhaeghe had 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists) in 43 games, adding another three points in Florida’s six-game series loss to his former Lightning teammates in the first round of the playoffs.

“Tampa developed him,” Brunette said, “He got into the lineup as a part of the group that won the Cup and he practiced, saw how hard and fast those guys did things and I think it picked his pace up another level.

He came here, had an opportunity and seized it.”

With one season still left on his contract, Verhaeghe earned himself a big payday, and finally, some stability.

On July 28, the Panthers signed him to a three-year contract extension worth $4.17 million that will keep him in South Florida through the 2024-25 season.

“It’s still kind of sinking a little bit that I’ve never been on a contract that long,” Verhaeghe said following the extension.

“I bounced around different teams and everything. It’s been a long road to kind of get a little bit of security, but it finally paid off. A lot of hard work and everything like that, but it’s still kind of sinking in a little bit.”

This season, he has proved to be worthy of that contract, putting up 36 points in 44 games so far.

And, like last season, he’s been a mainstay on the first line alongside Barkov.

“Every time he steps on the ice, he wants to score a goal,” Barkov said. “He wants to be the guy, he wants to create the scoring chances and I’m having a lot of fun playing with him and going through this season together.

“He’s a great guy, great player, and I’m really lucky to be playing with him.”

While Verhaeghe said it was the deep forward core in Tampa that gave him limited opportunities, he is now one of the headliners in a very deep group of forwards.

Even opponents are looking at him that way now.

“He was given the chance to play a top-six role with the Panthers and that’s where he is most effective, he took that opportunity and ran with it,” Point said.

”I don’t think anyone here is surprised to see him having the success he is. Like I said he’s an extremely gifted offensive player and he’s showing it with his play.

“He’s playing with confidence and with His speed, vision, and playmaking ability he’s a guy who can change a game. I’m very happy to see him doing so well.”

This season his 36 points are fifth on the team while his 15 goals rank him fifth on a team that features eight players with at least 10 goals.

“It’s a great story for any young hockey player,” Brunette said. “If you are persistent, you have some grit, and you continue to work on your game when you get an opportunity and you’re ready for it and you take advantage of it.

“He’s become a very dominant player in our league a lot of nights with how fast he plays the game, how fast he thinks the game.

”It is fun to see the evolution and I think there’s still a little more there from him.”

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