Wiebe’s World: In pursuit of opportunity, Verhaeghe finds top-line role with Panthers

Florida Panthers center Carter Verhaeghe (23) skates from the goal after scoring his second goal of the night against the Seattle Kraken, during the first period of an NHL hockey game. (John Froschauer/AP)

WINNIPEG – Quite simply, Carter Verhaeghe was looking for more.

As much as he enjoyed the arduous journey of becoming an NHL player, Verhaeghe also fully realized what the Tampa Bay Lightning depth chart looked like ahead of him.

There was little room to play an enhanced role after scratching and clawing to essentially gain fourth line status and play just under 10 minutes per game in his first full season, one that was capped by a Stanley Cup championship.

So after becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time, Verhaeghe took his talents to the in-state rival, inking a two-year deal worth $2 million with the Florida Panthers.

Fast forward two seasons – and backed by a three-year deal worth $12.5 million ($4.167 AAV) – and you find one of the great value contracts in the NHL.

Verhaeghe has quickly grown into a top-line player, leading the team with 15 goals and sitting second in points behind Matthew Tkachuk, the centrepiece of the offseason deal with the Calgary Flames.

“Tampa was my first year in the league and I was just kind of getting used to it and there were so many good players, I just got way more opportunity here,” said Verhaeghe. “Not that there was anything bad with Tampa. It was great. I learned a lot from guys in Tampa and I used it as a year to get better.

“When I signed here, I didn’t know I would be playing (on the top line). I wasn’t guaranteed anything.”

Upon his arrival with the Panthers, the coaching staff quickly put trust in Verhaeghe and he forged an almost immediate connection with Aleksander Barkov.

Linemates can come and go, but creating that chemistry helped lead to an immediate rise in ice time.

“We both like to play with speed and (Barkov) thinks the game so well, so he can react to everything,” said Verhaeghe. “We know where to find each other. He’s such a good player. We play a similar game in the offensive zone, with cycling and supporting each other.”

Now 27, Verhaeghe’s journey includes being a third-round pick (82nd overall) of the Toronto Maple Leafs back in 2013 but he never got the opportunity to suit up for his hometown team.

Verhaeghe was traded by the Maple Leafs to the New York Islanders in 2015 in a deal for Michael Grabner, then was dealt by the Islanders to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2017.

During the first two seasons of professional hockey, Verhaeghe suited up for 36 games for the Missouri Mavericks of the ECHL.

Those days feel like a long time ago for Verhaeghe, who is on pace to eclipse his career highs for goals (24), assists (31) and points (55), set last season.

“Tampa feels like 10 years ago, so that (time in the ECHL) feels like forever ago,” said Verhaeghe. “It’s crazy. You play so many games and things change so fast in hockey. (Eric Staal) is always asking me questions about my time there. It’s good looking back at the good times. Anywhere you play, you have good memories.

“You take nothing for granted. Six years ago, I’d be dreaming if I thought I would be here right now, you know what I mean? You’ve got to enjoy where you’re at.”

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Simple advice, but coming from someone who has gained valuable perspective from the road blocks he’s had to overcome throughout the years.

Verhaeghe scored 34 goals and racked up 82 points in his final AHL season with the Syracuse Crunch in 2018-19 before graduating to the NHL, so his offensive production shouldn’t come as a big surprise.

But not all players can maintain that scoring touch as they move their way up the ladder.

“I always knew I could score at this level and play at this level. It took a little bit of confidence to get a couple but after that, you just stick with it and rely on the skills that you worked on. Sometimes people don’t always believe in you, so you have to believe in yourself,” said Verhaeghe. “After I got traded from the Islanders, it was great right away. (In Syracuse), it wasn’t like the top prospects are going to play. They treated everyone really equally, so it helped me tremendously. Sometimes it felt like I couldn’t get ahead (in other organizations). (Crunch head coach) Benoit Groulx was amazing for me, he taught me so much and it got me to the next level. From there, it just took off.”

Panthers head coach Paul Maurice has learned a lot about Verhaeghe during the past several months, as it relates to his style of play and ability to get his shot off.

“If you put 20 guys into a scrum with the puck, he’s coming out with it, one way or another. But he is on the puck, hard on pucks, he scores from incredibly unusual angles to the point that you know he can do it. There’s no blocking him from the puck,” said Maurice. “He’s unique. He’s very, very similar, in some ways, to Kyle Connor. The puck comes off his stick before the goaltender expects it to come off his stick and he can do it while his feet are moving.”

That’s high praise from Maurice, who watched the Winnipeg Jets forward develop into one of the most natural goal scorers in the NHL.


Count me among those who expected Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang to be sidelined for a lot longer than he was after suffering the second stroke of his career back on Nov. 28.

But after undergoing a series of tests before ultimately receiving medical clearance, Letang was back on the ice at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres, taking 25 shifts for 22:14 of action – including the final two minutes as 16 seconds.

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When the Penguins announced that Letang would be out indefinitely on Nov. 30, there were questions and concerns about whether or not the franchise blue-liner would be able to play again or if his NHL career might actually be in jeopardy – especially when you consider he also suffered a stroke back in 2014.

“Kris has a medical team that have put him through a litany of tests. These are some of the smartest doctors in the world in their respective field,” Sullivan told reporters on Saturday. “Some people may have questions about it, but these people know a whole lot more about it than we do. Kris’ health, first and foremost, is the utmost priority.

“It means the world to our team. We’re a whole different defence corps when he’s in the lineup.”

Although he wasn’t credited with a shot on goal, Letang had seven hits in the contest and received a thundering ovation from the hometown faithful when he was announced as a member of the starting lineup.

“Stroke is a scary word. I’ve been lucky that these things resolve on their own and I can go back to a normal life,” Letang told reporters on Thursday. “People know me well by now and know that hockey is a passion for me. It’s something that it’s going to take a lot to drag me out of.”

That passion has always been something that’s driven Letang during his 17 seasons with the Penguins and it’s great that he was able to recover so quickly.

The NHL is a better place when he’s in uniform, provided it is safe for him to do so.

With much of the focus on the remarkable recovery and return of Letang, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby delivered another two goals and an assist in just under 19 minutes of ice time.

It was the 165th three-point game of Crosby’s career, which leaves him ninth in NHL history in the category, passing Hall of Famer Jari Kurri on that list.

At 35, Crosby is up to 17 goals and 38 points in 28 games this season for a Penguins squad that is tied for second place in the Metropolitan Division.


Speaking of genuine emotion, you could tell what it meant for Vegas Golden Knights head coach Bruce Cassidy to return to Boston earlier this week.

Cassidy got choked up during the video tribute and it was clear this wasn’t just another game for him.

“I’m used to hearing Dirty Water at the end of the game, so I’m glad I didn’t hear it,” Cassidy told reporters in Boston.

As a bonus, the Golden Knights handed the Bruins their first home-ice loss of the campaign.

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Cassidy coached 399 regular season games for the Bruins, amassing a .672 winning percentage, to go along with 73 playoff games over his six seasons.

It was great to see the photo on Twitter of Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron chatting with Cassidy in the hallway after the game captured by Joe Haggerty of Boston Hockey Now.

The Golden Knights host the Bruins in the second and final regular season meeting on Sunday night.

Continuing on the topic of emotional returns, Maurice was back in Winnipeg on Tuesday for the first time since becoming head coach of the Florida Panthers.

Maurice spent parts of nine seasons as the head coach of the Jets, taking over in January of 2014 from Claude Noel on an interim basis before handing in his resignation on Dec. 17 of 2021.

Fans saluted Maurice and associate coach Jamie Kompon during a stoppage in play and Maurice was quick to put his arm around Kompon and wave to the crowd to acknowledge the gesture.

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“It’s a special place for Jamie and I, isn’t it? We really appreciated it; it was good on the bench, it was good in the stands. That was very classy as they always are,” Maurice told reporters after the game. “It’s a special place and you could feel it. It’s more during the national anthems – one of my favourite things is the national anthems – it’s a great building, they’ve got a great fan base here and they appreciate the game. That was probably the emotional part, and then the puck dropped and away we went.”

There was a similar scene in Tampa, where Lightning fans nearly brought Ryan McDonagh to tears during a tribute.

McDonagh, who is out with an injury after an offseason trade to the Nashville Predators, was shown in a suite and the cheering came to a crescendo as he waved to the crowd.

McDonagh helped the Lightning win a pair of Stanley Cups after being acquired from the New York Rangers and also played a key role as they advanced to the final last season against the Colorado Avalanche.


The push for 800 NHL goals continues for Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin on Sunday against the Jets.

Ovechkin has three goals during his past two games to push his total to 796, which leaves him five goals behind Gordie Howe for second place all-time.

Remarkably, 100 of those goals for Ovechkin have come against two franchises – the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers (50) and the Lightning (50), with many of those markers coming during the days of the Southeast Division.

Suddenly, Wayne Gretzky’s benchmark of 894 doesn’t seem all that far into the distance, especially when you consider Ovechkin leads the Capitals in both goals (16) and points (29) in 29 games going into Sunday’s action.


Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner extended his point streak to a league-high 22 games on Saturday, notching an assist on a goal from William Nylander before adding the overtime winner on the power play in a 5-4 victory over the Calgary Flames. Marner is up to 11 goals and 30 points during the streak and currently sits 10th in the NHL with 35 points in 29 games…Speaking of streaks, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos now holds the second longest active one in the NHL at 13 (eight goals, 20 points during the span) after Minnesota Wild winger Kirill Kaprizov had his 14-game streak snapped on Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks. The Lightning have won 10 of the past 14 games to quietly push themselves into third place in the Atlantic Division…As for the Wild, goalie Filip Gustavsson made 30 saves to pick up his first NHL shutout on Saturday in the 3-0 triumph over the Canucks in what was his 37th NHL start. Gustavsson, acquired in the offseason deal with the Ottawa Senators for Cam Talbot, improved to 5-4-1 on the season while raising his save percentage to .920 and lowering his goals-against average to 2.47. The Wild have won five of the past seven games to move into third place in the Central Division…Tough news for Columbus Blue Jackets forward Jake Voracek, who told reporters earlier this week that he was likely done for the season with post-concussion symptoms. Voracek has played 1,058 regular season games during his 15-year career and has one more season left on the eight-year, $66 million ($8.25 million AAV) contract he signed back in 2015 with the Philadelphia Flyers.

If you’ve got a topic you’d like to see explored in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at wiebesworld9@gmail.com.

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