Carter Verhaeghe, your favorite player’s favorite wingman, hits a new career high in goals

Gene J. Puskar/AP

From almost the day he arrived in Broward County until a few weeks ago, Carter Verhaeghe was Aleksander Barkov’s go-to wingman. Joel Quenneville took a chance back in 2020 when he decided to pair his star center with Verhaeghe, who had just one season of NHL experience as a bottom-line forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and it worked right away. He scored 18 goals in his first season as a Florida Panther, then 24 last year and now, only 50 games into his third season as a Panther, he already has 25 — a new career high and tied with Matthew Tkachuk for the most on the team.

He did it for more than two years with Barkov and now he’s doing it with Tkachuk, on the second line on the opposite wing as the All-Star forward.

In Verhaeghe’s three seasons with Florida, the Panthers have found a truism: Stick Verhaeghe with a star and he’s going to produce like one, too.

“I’m playing with some great players,” he said Tuesday. “They find me on the ice in really good positions to score goals, so I’m just shooting more and they’re going in.”

In a massively disappointing season in South Florida, Verhaeghe has been a true bright spot. The 2023 NHL All-Star Game is next week in Sunrise and it’s not crazy to think Verhaeghe could be a fill-in forward if someone has to pull out for an injury or some other reason. His production is worthy and often coincides with his team’s best moments.

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Look no further than Tuesday: The Panthers (23-21-6) blew three separate leads to the Pittsburgh Penguins and twice wound up trailing in regulation, and Verhaeghe answered with the game-tying goal both times. His second came with just 2:32 left in regulation when he intercepted a misplayed puck in the offensive zone, beat the defense down the ice to draw Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith out of the net and tapped the puck around the near goal post to force overtime in Pittsburgh, and get Florida a badly needed point with a 7-6, overtime loss on the second night of a back-to-back set.

“He’s been great,” coach Paul Maurice said Tuesday. “Tonight, especially after last night, he was skating and had a real drive to his game.”

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For another example, look back to the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs: The Panthers’ last great moment was their first-round win against the Washington Capitals last year and Verhaeghe led Florida with six goals, including the series-winning tally in Game 6. He was good when the Panthers were great and he’s still good even when they’re bad — he has been a model of consistency for more than two years because he has become the ideal winger to play next to stars.

It starts with his speed because the 27-year-old Canadian wouldn’t be a top-six forward without one high-end skill and his skating ability has become his signature trait. It’s something he was toiling in the minor leagues for five years, especially in his two stints with ECHL Missouri as part of the New York Islanders’ organization.

“I realized that skating was the biggest thing,” Verhaeghe said. “Everything everyone always told me was, Work on your skating, work on your skating and then you can play.”

It was further emphasized once he made to the NHL with the Lightning in 2018 and got to watch Tampa Bay center Brayden Point up close during a Stanley Cup run.

Really, everything about his time in Tampa influenced the other part of why he’s now such a perfect role player.

“I was on the bottom line. Whatever, I watched all those great players and I took so much from it,” Verhaeghe said. “I realized what it took. ... I wanted to be a part of that.”

With Florida, he got a chance for a bigger role, made the most of it, helped turn the Panthers into a Cup contender last year and delivered Florida its biggest postseason moment in more than 25 years.

Since his goal-scoring binge then, Verhaeghe hasn’t slowed down. A new coaching staff urged him to lean even more into his goal-scoring ability — as the finisher, whether he’s playing with Barkov or Tkachuk, or both — and he has.

In all of last season, Verhaeghe took 149 shots and attempted 312. Already this year, he has taken 149 with 259 attempts, including six and 11 on Tuesday, and his shooting percentage has gone up.

“If you go into the game thinking you want to shoot the puck, it makes it easier to do it,” Verhaeghe said. “They wanted me to be a shooter and playing with those two guys, who are such great passers, it’s so easy. They put me in great positions to shoot.”