Whenever you have a franchise featuring as much talent as the Tampa Bay Lightning over the last decade, eventually, a talented player developing within their system will slip away for nothing. This happens from time to time, as a young player with upside who shows glimpses of elite talent but is unable to break through the roster of established stars.
A recent example of this for the Lightning is when Jonathan Marchessault left the franchise in 2016 to join the Florida Panthers after being a scoring leader for Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, in 2014-15. While it was clear that he had a lot of offensive talent, it was still a bit of a surprise to see Marchessault score 30 goals with Florida, before he was sent to the Vegas Golden Knights at the expansion draft to become one of the faces of the then-brand-new franchise.
The reason why I bring up Marchessault to start this article about Carter Verhaeghe is due to the parallels you can draw between the two players. Much like Marchessault, Verhaeghe joined Tampa Bay in a minor-league trade that no one expected would become anything impactful. While he was a third-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he never really found his professional hockey footing until he started playing for the Crunch. In his first season he scored a solid 17 goals and 48 points before bursting onto the scene in 2018-19 with an AHL leading 82 points while being tied for the league lead in goal scoring with 34.
With these totals under his belt, it was time for Verhaeghe to get his shot in the NHL, with the Lightning keeping him on their roster out of training camp. While he was given some ice-time throughout the 2019-20 season, it was inconsistent at best, as he averaged less than 10 minutes of playing time each night in 52 games. While he had some exceptional moments, like scoring the fourth rookie hat trick in team history, for the most part, his season was middling as he toiled away on the fourth line.
Even though he would go on to win the 2020 Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay, it was clear that Verhaeghe wasn’t going to get a full opportunity to shine with the franchise. This led to him departing the Lightning during the 2020 offseason, where he placed a bet on himself and joined their cross-state rivals.
Verhaeghe Fought For His Place in the NHL
By signing a two-year, $2 million contract with the Panthers, Verhaeghe essentially did the same thing as Marchessault. He saw an opportunity for increased playing time on a strong offensive roster and took an affordable contract to make himself a high-upside signing. For Florida, this was an incredibly smart move as well, as at the very worst he could be a bottom-six plug to fill in at a moment’s notice during an uncertain season.
Fortunately for both player and team, Verhaeghe has thrived in this new position. Through his first two regular seasons with Florida, he has scored 42 goals and 91 points in 121 games played, along with a monster plus-48. Considering his cap hit is just $1 million, that makes him one of the best values in the entire NHL.
Seeing his potential, the Panthers wasted no time signing Verhaeghe to an extension. During the 2021 offseason, they made him part of their core with a three-year deal carrying a $4.16 million cap hit, which will keep him with the team until he is 30-years-old. So, if he continues playing well, there could be at least one more multi-year contract left in his future.
Lightning Made the Correct Choice By Letting Verhaeghe Walk
Whenever a team loses a player for nothing in free agency just to see them go literally across the state and reach their potential, it hurts. For years, the Lightning helped develop Verhaeghe from a fringe NHLer to a full-time starter, so to not reap the rewards of this work is always a letdown.
For the Lightning, though, they made the right choice to not hold onto Verhaeghe. It was clear that he was ready to take that next step in his career and that he wasn’t going to get a real chance with the team due to the talent on their roster. Also, continuing to bury him on their roster would do nothing productive for either party, meaning letting him walk was the only choice.
However, even if he is wearing a rival’s colors, it doesn’t mean that Lightning fans still can’t cheer for Verhaeghe. He gave some good years to the franchise and was present in the Bubble for their 2020 Stanley Cup run, so he has his place in Tampa Bay sports history. Despite this, it’s impossible to watch him become a key contributor for the Panthers and not feel a twinge of regret from letting him go.