How Leafs draft pick Carter Verhaeghe ended up on the Panthers

Watch as Florida Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe puts a backhand shot top shelf to score the overtime game-winning goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2.

Is there a more clutch player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs right now than the Florida PanthersCarter Verhaeghe?

Sure, in a Game 7 overtime draft, you’d probably take Connor McDavid ahead of him, or Nathan MacKinnon, or other marquee players who dazzle with their offensive impact night in and night out.

But Verhaeghe’s propensity to be the difference maker in the post-season’s biggest moments is something to behold. His latest example, scoring the Game 2 OT winner against Tampa Bay to give Florida a 2-0 series lead, placed Verhaeghe amongst some all-time greats. Now, only Joe Sakic (eight) and Maurice Richard (six) have more playoff OT winners in their careers than Verhaeghe, who is tied with Glenn Anderson, Patrick Kane and Corey Perry at five in their career.

It’s an amazing stat when you consider Verhaeghe is still 28, with lots of road ahead of him yet, and that this is just his fifth year in the post-season … and fourth as a regular. And it gets even more incredible when you consider how many games it took him to get those five OT goals compared to the others.

According to Chris Jastrzembski, a researcher for the NHL on TNT, Verhaeghe has scored his five OT markers in 47 playoff games, versus Sakic playing in 172, Richard in 132, Perry in 197, Kane in 143 and Anderson in 225.

“He’s got the clutch gene. He’s born with it,” Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad said after Game 2.

It’s fair to say no one predicted Verhaeghe would go on to become such an impactful player in the NHL early in his career. Verhaeghe didn’t even score 30 goals in the OHL until two years after he was picked by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third round of the 2013 NHL draft. In his first two pro seasons, he wasn’t even able to stick in the AHL from beginning to end, getting bumped to the ECHL for 36 games.

Verhaeghe played two games with the Toronto Marlies, but before his first full pro season began the Maple Leafs, under GM Lou Lamoriello, traded him to the New York Islanders for Michael Grabner. Two years after that, without putting on an Islanders jersey, Verhaeghe was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for goalie Kristers Gudlevskis. With the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, Verhaeghe quickly became a full-time, top-six AHL forward and led the league with 34 goals and 82 points in 2018-19.

When his NHL career finally began in 2019-20 at the age of 24, Verhaeghe was trying to break into a stacked Tampa Bay lineup on the cusp of its Stanley Cup years. He scored nine goals and 13 points in 52 games as an NHL rookie, numbers that don’t jump off the page at you, but have to be viewed within the context that he was largely a fourth-line player who was getting less than 10 minutes a game.

If you knew where to look, you could see the potential Verhaeghe had if he could earn more ice time. At 5-on-5 in that rookie season, Verhaeghe was one of five Lightning players to average over one goal per 60 minutes of ice time, joining Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point.

But, after winning the Stanley Cup that season — Verhaeghe contributed two assists in eight games during the run — the Lightning felt the first pinch of the pandemic-induced flat cap. With core players taking priority, Verhaeghe ended up being one of the first cap casualties, an arbitration-eligible RFA who the Lightning decided to leave unqualified and walk away from.

Verhaeghe became a UFA that summer, and signed a two-year, $1-million AAV contract with the Panthers. The ascent began, with 18 goals in 43 games out of the gate and 24 goals in his second campaign. He earned a three-year extension with a $4.166 million AAV out of that and then became a 40-goal scorer for the Panthers.

Now one of Florida’s most important forwards, and perhaps its most clutch of all, Verhaeghe has been one of the best early stories of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs. For more on Verhaeghe, where he gets his goals from and how the Panthers ended up with him, we turn to our scout, Jason Bukala.


I recall when Verhaeghe was playing in the OHL for the Niagara Ice Dogs in his draft year. I have to be honest, he presented a skill component that could potentially translate to the pro level, but he was also a bit too “one and done” physically. He didn’t look like a player who was going to battle exceptionally hard in the trenches, or push back a ton. I needed him to provide more than he did at the time. I wasn’t convinced he had the necessary push through for his offensive element to impact the NHL game, and his defensive detail was barely adequate.

Fast forward to today, and Verhaeghe obviously figured out what was required of him to become a scorer at the NHL level and he has turned the corner defensively. But it took time and he had stops with the Leafs, Islanders and Lightning organizations before getting his chance with the Panthers.

Here’s a look at where Verhaeghe scored his 34 goals this season. He’s a threat from all quadrants, but especially around the crease and between the hash marks and middle of the ice.

I spoke with some former colleagues of mine who were still with the Panthers when they signed Verhaeghe in the fall of 2020. At the time, the staff was led by director of pro scouting Al Tuer, who is now a pro scout with the New York Rangers. He, and others on the staff, believed Verhaeghe had untapped potential and was worth taking a risk to sign.

(Another pesky player the Panthers added on the advice of Tuer was depth energy forward Ryan Lomberg, who plays quick, provides relentless compete and never backs down physically.)

One of the interesting things that came out of my conversations was the fact the Panthers have established an internal strategy to “aggressively find” under the radar players who have identified NHL upside, but have been toiling at the minor pro levels worldwide. With this strategy, they’ve been able to fill out their roster with the likes of Gustav Forsling, Tobias Bjornfot, Josh Mahura, Kevin Stenlund and Jonah Gadjovich.

Today, the Panthers have one of the largest scouting staffs in the NHL, and GM Bill Zito has done an outstanding job expanding his group. The results speak for themselves when it comes to utilizing the waiver wire and signing affordable depth free agents.

Verhaeghe is the most notable find today, but there are several players on this year’s roster who found the best version of themselves after joining the Panthers.

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