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Forget the hat trick. Applaud the journey that brought Carter Verhaeghe to the Lightning

John Romano | The Tampa Bay rookie scored three goals against Vancouver, but that’s nothing compared to the six years of minor-league hockey it took for Carter Verhaeghe to finally arrive.
Carter Verhaeghe (23), center, scored more goals on Tuesday night against Vancouver than in his previous 28 NHL games combined. The rookie is starting to earn more ice time after impressing coach Jon Cooper with his willingness to battle for the puck. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Carter Verhaeghe (23), center, scored more goals on Tuesday night against Vancouver than in his previous 28 NHL games combined. The rookie is starting to earn more ice time after impressing coach Jon Cooper with his willingness to battle for the puck. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Jan. 8
Updated Jan. 10

TAMPA — He has been in pro hockey longer than Brayden Point. That’s important to know.

He has been around longer than Erik Cernak and Anthony Cirelli, too. And several years more than Mikhail Sergachev.

The point is that Carter Verhaeghe is not some fresh-scrubbed prospect the hockey world has been waiting to welcome. He has been traded, ignored, demoted and stalled. If he has ever been celebrated, it was in the kind of arenas that every player dreams of leaving behind.

That’s the backstory. All those years, all those disappointments, all those nights refusing to give in. And all of it leading up to a 24-year-old rookie watching hats rain down on the ice at Amalie Arena on Tuesday night after his first NHL hat trick in a 9-2 Lightning win against Vancouver.

“Pretty cool moment," Steven Stamkos said.

Related: Lightning’s Carter Verhaeghe scores first NHL hat trick in win over Vancouver

“It was awesome just to see his big smile," Mitchell Stephens said.

“I’m proud of him," coach Jon Cooper said.

This wasn’t just unscripted, it was unthinkable a month ago. Verhaeghe may have made the Lightning roster out of training camp, but his rookie season started slowly and then got worse. He got an assist in his second NHL game, but then went scoreless for two months.

He was bouncing from center to wing, from the fourth line to the first. There was one stretch where he was a healthy scratch in 10 out of 19 games.

But if you doubted whether Verhaeghe could persevere, then you hadn’t paid attention to his minor-league career.

“The thing is you have to hang in there with them while they’re going through this. Everybody doesn’t come into the league and take it by storm, unless you’re (drafted) first overall,’" Cooper said. “Everybody has to find their way, especially somebody who has gone the road less traveled as Carter has. He’s found a way in every league he’s played in. For now, he’s really finding a way here."

Drafted in the third round by Toronto in 2013 he was traded to the Islanders a couple of years later, with four other young players, in the Michael Grabner deal. He made it to the American Hockey League in 2015-16, then got sent back to the ECHL (a level below) a year later.

Related: How Mikhail Sergachev became ‘most improved’ Lightning player

Then came another trade to the Lightning for minor-league goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis, in a deal that seemed like one underachieving draft pick for another. An injury initially kept him out of Syracuse’s lineup and he later had to implore coach Benoit Groulx for regular playing time.

By last season, he was the AHL’s leading scorer.

“He’s competitive, he’s a hard worker, and he’s always been determined," said Syracuse Crunch broadcaster Lukas Favale. “Once he got to Syracuse, he said the Lightning were the first organization to give him a chance. Even if he did have to bang on Ben’s door to ask for it."

As special as it was, one night is not going to buy Verhaeghe a lot of extra playing time. Not if he doesn’t capitalize in the coming weeks.

A member of the Tampa Bay Lightning ice crew carries hats off the ice after Carter Verhaeghe scored this third goal for a hat trick Tuesday night. [CHRIS O'MEARA | AP]

Hours before Tuesday’s game, Cooper said Verhaeghe was showing signs of understanding the differences between the AHL and the NHL. He was cutting down on risky plays, and winning more of his one-on-one puck battles.

The skills were never in doubt. He has increased his speed since coming to the organization, and he’s got a scorer’s touch. It’s just a question of having the confidence and instincts to make that transition.

“It’s a different league. The (defenses) have way better gaps here," Verhaeghe said. “I can’t just get the puck and look up and have a ton of space. I usually don’t. So I have to pick my time and be more aware and win more puck battles. When you win puck battles, you have opportunities to make plays."

A month ago, Verhaeghe scored his first NHL goal and sent the puck back to Ontario for his mom. On Tuesday, he was posing for pictures in the locker room with pucks from his third, fourth and fifth career goals.

As the room was finally beginning to clear out, Lightning forward Pat Maroon strolled through and teased Verhaeghe about the differences between the AHL and NHL:

“You got media, baby. It’s not like the ’Cuse, is it?"

No, it’s not. And few appreciate it more than Verhaeghe.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes

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