BRANDON — Carter Verhaeghe ran the gauntlet on Monday.
The Lightning lined up about two feet off the boards. Each player delivered friendly checks to Verhaeghe as he skated through the gap.
Welcome to the NHL, rookie.
The Lightning made cuts to get the roster to the regular season’s 23-player limit. Danick Martel, who cleared waivers Monday and Alex Volkov were assigned to the AHL. Luke Schenn was put on waivers, likely to be sent to Syracuse if he clears.
Gemel Smith and Luke Witkowski stick in the NHL.
This will be Verhaeghe’s first taste of the NHL, the next step in a career that traveled not only through the AHL but the ECHL as well.
“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet,” he said. “Over the last couple of years, I’ve come such a long way.”
Coach Jon Cooper gave Verhaeghe the news in a meeting on Sunday. The 24-year-old immediately called his parents, who plan to travel from Ontario for Thursday’s opening night.
Cooper praised Verhaeghe’s training camp and overall improvement over the past two years. At that point, Verhaeghe was bouncing between AHL and ECHL in the Islanders’ organization. Now, he’s coming off a season as the AHL’s leading scorer.
“His speed has picked up, his possession of the puck, his hockey sense,” Cooper said. “He seems to have an ability that the puck sort of follows him around a little bit. He makes really good decisions for the most part in where to put the puck.”
Verhaeghe came into training camp on the radar for the NHL roster. Smith and Witkowski were not as high on the list, but played themselves onto it.
Witkowski’s versatility at both forward and defenseman, especially what his size and physical play add on the fourth line, earned him his spot in the NHL. It may also have cost Luke Schenn his place on the team.
The Lightning came into camp with eight defensemen on NHL one-way contracts. At the time, general manager Julien BriseBois said he’d expect those eight to be on the opening-night roster. Then Witkowski had a great showing. Nine defensemen is too many, even if one does play forward.
By keeping Witkowski, the Lightning have both a 14th forward and eighth defenseman.
“There are so many more implications than lineup,” Cooper said about Schenn. “There’s cap, there’s rosters, there are so many things that have to be looked into beyond the coaching staff looking at a player.”
The Lightning signed Schenn to a one-way contract on July 1, before they knew Kevin Shattenkirk would be available (the Rangers bought out his contract) or what Witkowski would show.
Volkov was another player high on the list coming into camp. He’s been close to making the roster for two years, but came up just short again. Cooper opened the door for a possible recall in which Volkov could get another chance.
The injuries are already piling up for the Lightning. Cedric Paquette, Tyler Johnson and Victor Hedman all missed practice on Monday. Cooper called Johnson and Hedman day-to-day, but said Paquette will definitely miss a few games.
He’s hopeful that Johnson and Hedman will be ready for Thursday’s game against Florida.
Brayden Point practiced in a regular blue jersey, instead of his no-contact red sweater. That doesn’t mean he’s ready, but the timeline looks good. It’s a matter of getting Point in game shape and then getting final clearance from the doctor as he works his way back from hip surgery.
“I’m hopeful that it will be sooner rather than later,” Cooper said when asked about the original late October estimate.