The Florida Panthers’ top line, as they make a highly anticipated run at a division title, includes two second overall draft picks in all-star captain Aleksander Barkov and the Panthers’ biggest off-season acquisition in Sam Reinhart. Alongside them is Carter Verhaeghe, a just turned 26-year-old winger embarking on his first 82 game season in the NHL. It begs the question, what exactly do the Florida Panthers have in Verhaeghe?
Verhaeghe went 83rd overall in the same draft as Barkov, but made his NHL debut six full seasons later. Verhaeghe has only amassed 96 NHL games in his career compared to Barkov’s 530 games and Reinhart’s 455. Verhaeghe, though impressive in his first season in South Florida, is still a curious commodity.
Verhaeghe Scores at All Levels
Verhaeghe’s numbers at the NHL level are impressive, but the sample size is still small. Despite that, he still has quite the résumé to evaluate. After potting 33 goals in 68 games in his last season of junior hockey, he played parts of four seasons in the American Hockey League. Splitting time between the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and the Syracuse Crunch, he posted 73 goals in 209 games.
That pace works out to roughly a goal every three games, or 29 goals over a full season. In other words, Verhaeghe showed that he could score wherever he played. That ability has translated to the NHL with 29 goals in 96 career games, despite playing more than half of those on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s fourth line in 2019-20. In just 44 games as a Panther, he has 20 goals, including two on opening night this season. He can score, but why does he score so consistently?
Verhaeghe is an Elite NHL Shooter
Of course, there is a benefit to playing alongside Barkov, but plenty of players have played alongside elite talents and failed to perform. At some point, teams realized that Chris Kunitz was actually a good NHL player, not just Sidney Crosby’s sidekick. For Verhaeghe, there is certainly a bump from playing with Barkov, but his shot selection is also a significant factor.
Since Verhaeghe became a full-time NHL player two years ago, he sits eighth in the league in shooting percentage among players who played more than 50 games in that time. A high shooting percentage is indicative of one of three things: luck, easy goals, or legitimate shooting ability. Given the trend has continued over more than two seasons, luck is probably out of the question. When it comes to tap-ins and easy goals, Verhaeghe only has two empty net goals in that span. Instead, the answer lies in his shot selection.
Verhaeghe clearly picks his spots and does so well. Not only is his shooting percentage among the league’s best, but he’s also only missed the net 54 times in those 96 games. When you combine the fact that he does not miss the net with the fact that his shooting percentage is so high, you get serious goal production.
This all comes at even strength, too, since Verhaeghe has averaged less than 50 seconds a game on the power play during his NHL career. Though he is only on the second power play unit this season, expect his ice time per game and power play exposure to continually increase. All of these factors point to even more production from this seemingly elite NHL shooter.
Verhaeghe’s Team-Friendly Contract
To make the package even better, Verhaeghe is arguably the best value find in recent NHL memory. Whether general manager Bill Zito and the team thought they would get this kind of production from their now first-line winger or not is another question, but they simply look like geniuses.
Not only did Verhaeghe produce instantly, but he signed an incredibly team-friendly two-year deal at $1 million in average annual value. That deal expires at the end of this season, and his three-year, $12.5 million extension then begins.
Even with the more than three-fold increase in cost, the price is still great value for the production seen. Dom Luszczyszyn at The Athletic ranked the Verhaeghe contract, including his extension, as the fourth-best contract in the NHL this season, given his play is responsible for 2.5 projected wins per year, according to the model used (from ‘The NHL’s 10 Best Contracts, 2021 Edition’, The Athletic, 8/10/21). That ranks alongside historical production from players like Brad Marchand, James Neal, and Logan Couture in their respective primes. Getting any of those players, at the high point of their careers, for under $4.2 million a year in today’s dollars would be considered an absolute bargain.
The Road Ahead for Verhaeghe:
After scoring both the first and last goal of the game in the season opener – on only two shots, I might add – Verhaeghe looks as though he is ready to pick up where he left off last season. Getting quality first-line minutes with Barkov again will certainly help. Add in both Reinhart as his other linemate, instead of the less than formidable Mason Marchment, and consistent power play time, and Verhaeghe’s production could increase exponentially.
Mitch Davidson originally hails from Oro-Medonte, Ontario just north of Toronto and has been following hockey, the business of the NHL, and the Florida Panthers for the better part of two decades. In his professional career, Mitch is a full time writer as he serves as Executive Director of a public policy think tank, a regular public opinion columnist, and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, following a 6 year run as a senior staffer in provincial politics.