EDMONTON — When you watch Carter Verhaeghe on the ice with the Lightning, he’s a player who battles every shift — and that’s a perfect way to describe his road to the National Hockey League.
He’s had to battle every step of the way.
At 25, many players who don’t reach their dreams may look at going to Europe as an option. Others may just hang up their skates all together — but Verhaeghe didn’t give up.
He made his NHL debut with the Lightning this season and is now been called upon to play a role in a potential Stanley Cup run.
“Carter’s come a long way,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “I watched him in the Calder Cup playoffs last year, and if there was a guy that stood out to me, it was him. He’s not afraid to go into dirty areas, and he’s got sneaky good skill."
Growing up in Toronto, Verhaeghe was selected by his hometown Maple Leafs in the third round of the 2013 draft.
But his time in the organization was short-lived as he played just two games in the American Hockey League and was dealt along with a crop of prospects to the New York Islanders for Michael Grabner.
He spent two seasons in the Isles organization bouncing back and forth between the AHL and the East Coast Hockey League before being traded again — this time to the Lightning for goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis in 2017.
Verhaeghe scored 17 goals in his first season with the Lightning’s farm team in Syracuse and last year led the entire AHL in scoring with 34 goals and 82 points in 76 games.
“The (AHL) is such a beneficial league, not only for people like myself and other coaches, but for players to play in it and develop,” said Cooper. “He’s really worked on his skating, and it’s great to see what Carter’s done to put himself in a position to play in the NHL.”
After leading the AHL in scoring last year, for some prospects it may secure a spot to make the jump to the NHL, but it wasn’t just given to Verhaeghe. He cracked the Lightning’s opening-night roster and earned his first NHL point in his second game against the Florida Panthers.
But it took awhile for him to notch his first NHL goal — 17 games in fact. It came Dec. 7 in a 7-1 win over the San Jose Sharks. It also marked his first multi-point game of his career. Exactly one month later, he scored his first-career hat trick.
Verhaeghe hasn’t become a regular in the deep Lightning lineup, but when called upon, he’s found a role and his confidence grew over the course of the year.
He drew back into the lineup in Tampa Bay’s 2-1, double-overtime loss in Game 5 and played on a line with Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn. He logged a career-high 20:24 of ice time and looked to score his first-ever playoff goal in the second period, but it was overturned on an offside call.
“It felt good when it went in, but I kind of had an idea when we got in the huddle,” said Verhaeghe. “Cedi (Cedric Paquette) told me it was offside right away. He was the one who was offside, so he knew. I tried to sell it a little bit, and it was a good feeling, but too bad it didn’t count."
Verhaeghe may have been denied his first playoff goal, but if history shows anything, he’ll keep battling and do whatever he needs to help the Lightning in these playoffs.
“It’s been a great year, and I’m lucky to be on such a great team,” said Verhaeghe. “We’ve had a great run so far, and we have a lot of guys who know what it takes (to win). It’s been a fun experience.”
Verhaeghe finished the regular season with nine goals and 13 points, and he’s recorded two assists in five playoff games as a rookie.
“It’s been pretty special to watch his progression,” said Cooper. “Now, in some of the biggest times in our organization’s history, he’s being slotted in to play a role for us. Good on him, and he’s deserved everything that’s come to him.”