While the Maple Leafs have spent the season auditioning top-six wingers, and specifically left wingers, a former Leafs prospect has clawed his way up the roster in Florida to the top line. Was the answer to the present problem there in the past all along?
The first thing to remember about Carter Verhaeghe as we investigate his amazing season is that he’s 25. NHL players hitting a surprising peak at age 25 is not unusual. Contract status has something to do with it. Early UFAs finally get out from under the expectations of the teams that had them as RFAs, and they can sign where they want and just be themselves, often at a salary that keeps them in the lineup. It’s also the point at which maturity and skill are maximizing as physical ability is not yet declining, and they play their very best hockey. The great players keep it up for five, ten or very rarely 15 more years, but for a lot of players it’s one or two years of perpetual sunshine before reality comes raining down.
Is Verhaeghe going to last, or is he one of the one-hit wonders?
Verhaeghe was drafted by the Leafs in 2013 in the third round, 82nd overall. The Leafs had just finished third in their division and made the playoffs on 57 points in 48 games. There was a playoff series against the Bruins where nothing of import happened, and then they drafted Frederik Gauthier with the 21st overall.
The second-round pick had been traded for Dave Bolland, and the next pick the Leafs had went for Verhaeghe. He is never going to be the best man taken by the Leafs in that draft, because Toronto redeemed themselves with Andreas Johnsson in the seventh round. But he might well end up being the second best.
Verhaeghe played for the Niagara IceDogs in the OHL, and to be honest, no one should call him a sure thing or an obvious steal. He only had 44 points in 67 games in his pre-draft season. He’d made Canada’s U18 team, but never got a sniff from Hockey Canada at a higher level.
Post-draft, he roared out to 82 points in 65 games, got a quick look on the Marlies and then repeated the 82, this time in 68 games the next year. He was always good in the playoffs too, reliable for some points.
As a comparison, he played with Brendan Perlini on the IceDogs. He scored more and passed less than Verhaeghe and was drafted 12th overall in 2014. Perlini has knocked around the NHL on bad teams and never found a place, and this season he played in the Swiss league a little while Verhaeghe got to polish his Cup ring once in a while. Is there a lesson to be learned there about scoring in junior and future ability? Maybe, but we won’t learn it. I have no hope of that.
Back to Verhaeghe. In 2015, after that one tour on the Marlies where he played two games, he was traded in a big contract-clearing deal for Micheal Grabner. The Leafs, under Lou Lamoriello, were about to tank like they meant it for the first overall. The intent was to flip Grabner at the deadline for picks, but for whatever reason, that never happened. Also traded in the deal were Taylor Beck, Matt Finn, Chris Gibson and Tom Nilsson.
Gibson is in the Tampa organization playing at the AHL level, Beck is currently an excellent KHLer on a contender, Finn is several levels down in Austria, and Nilsson has had a good career in Sweden. At the time, Beck seemed to be considered the best of the bunch, and that’s plausible considering he’d be a top-line AHLer now if he’d stayed in North America.
But Verhaeghe scored a hat trick, won it in overtime and played 24 minutes on the top line as the Florida Panthers beat Dallas last Saturday night. How did he get there?
He spent two years in the Islanders organization, and at that time, their AHL team in Bridgeport was very old fashioned. The players were often older AHL veterans, and the idea of development came second to a place to just park some call-ups. Beck was good for one year, but Verhaeghe was merely okay, and kept getting sent to the ECHL.
It was very, very clear he was too good for the ECHL, but the Leafs have had lots of those players recently, and they don’t always translate their skills up two levels to the NHL. Some of them on the Marlies right now look as promising as Mason Marchment — currently on the Panthers roster — but most ECHL players top out at good AHLer.
The Islanders, luckily for Verhaeghe, traded him to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a goalie when they were short one. On the Syracuse Crunch, one of the best AHL teams around at that time, Verhaeghe caught fire.
In 2018-2019, at age 23, he scored his classic 82 points, in 76 games in his second season in Syracuse. He was a whole new man!
Last year he became a man with a Cup ring, as he played a limited depth role on the Lightning in the regular season and eight of their playoff games. He was not a regular roster player, and I watched all of their playoff run, and I thought, honestly, he was terrible. Seriously. There was no there, there. He could kill some minutes, but nothing about his play on the fourth line stood out.
However, more advanced ways of measuring performance than just watching show him as a player with some gifts at creating offence. He doesn’t shoot much or well, and he didn’t raise the Lightning’s goal differential, but he sure did boost their Expected Goals, particularly the xGF.
The Lightning, facing a cap crunch of epic proportions, chose to opt out of offering Verhaeghe a qualifying offer and ending up in arbitration. As a UFA, he signed for two years at $1 million per year in Florida.
So is new Florida GM Bill Zito a genius? Or is Verhaeghe just riding the wave of a couple of unheralded but excellent forwards in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau?
You know the drill. If something seems too good (or bad) to be true, check the percentages. Verhaeghe is shooting 18% in all situations this season, and he’s not going to do that forever. He shot at 16% last year as well, so he’s been on a heater for what now amounts to less than a full season of minutes for top-six player. He’s still in the range where weirdness should be expected in that percentage.
That doesn’t mean he’s bad, though. But we do need something less luck-infused than ordinary shooting percentage. The thing with the horrible abreviation, xFSh%, just means the shooting percentage an average player would be expected to get on the actual unblocked shots taken if he always faced an equally average goalie. Because it’s based on all unblocked shots, the numbers that denote too amazing to be believed are lower than the traditional measure we’re more used to.
Verhaeghe had an expected % of 8 last season and 12 this season. He’s producing actual goals over expected by three percentage points last year, and just under two this year.
Is that expected shooting percentage good? It sure is. In the last two seasons (not combined, since I’m not combining Verhaeghe’s) the best forward with over 300 minutes is... okay this is why I didn’t combine them... Zach Hyman at 13.79% last year.
Hyman plays a particular game, and he’s nearly always on the ice with a better player. He was last year, at any rate. So he only shoots when he should shoot and there isn’t a good reason to pass it to Matthews or Nylander or Tavares. That’s why he’s leading this list, not because he’s the best. He’s good, though. Maybe better now than he has ever been, and he is definitely maintaining his smart and fit years deep into his twenties.
Now that we’ve thought that through, you won’t be surprised when I give you the rest of the top 10:
- Kailer Yamamoto - last year
- Greg McKegg (really) - last year
- Cody Glass - this year
- Sebastian Aho - last year
- Warren Foegele - this year
- Chris Kreider - this year
- Christian Dvorak - this year
- Alex Chiasson - this year
- Jesse Puljujarvi - this year
So, looking at expected shooting percentage gives you this truly delightful mix of careful depth shooters, good players riding along with genius playmakers and actual geniuses. I don’t think we’re doing Verhaeghe a disservice if we expect him to not be an actual genius. Okay, now for the 11th and 12th on that list:
- Joel Eriksson Ek - this year
- Carter Verhaeghe - this year
He’s not a secret genius, but he sure looks like a good and careful shooter.
There’s more to life in the fast lane than personal shooting, and the next thing to look at is, to the best of modern ability, his isolated impacts:
I picked this type of chart for the obvious reason, but HockeyViz agrees, Verhaeghe is amazing at creating offence, and not exactly bad defensively for a winger. He has also played 382 minutes at five-on-five with Barkov and only 77 away.
I do not believe that it is possible to pick them apart when they play so much together, and I’m really comfortable saying two things: Barkov is elite, always had been, and would be so damn famous on any other team. And Joel Quenneville should win the Jack Adams.
I don’t think Verhaeghe is a passenger, however. He’s at the very least an able navigator while Barkov drives the car. Identifying how good he is is just difficult, and in hindsight, if you’re so inclined, you can claim everyone should have seen this coming, but no, they really shouldn’t have. He was good. Exciting even sometimes at lower levels, but he never looked like the guy you’d pluck out of the chorus to sing the lead and get his Hollywood ending.
Back on the Leafs, they tried to work a Verhaeghe miracle with Jimmy Vesey and it fizzled. Alex Barabanov is sitting around now not playing, and if anyone deserves a long look in the NHL now after his brief and exciting tour of the AHL, it’s him. Maybe he should be given a chance, and his seeming affinity for faster paced offence in the top six than the fourth line gives a hint of how Verhaeghe went from nearly invisible attributes to a hat trick in a game without Barkov.
If there’s lessons for the Leafs in this tale of hard work and glorious success , it isn’t actually that the ECHL can totally be used as development, although it is handy to have a place to play a guy top-line minutes. The lesson is that the leap between the AHL and the NHL is really hard to predict. It’s not an automatic promotion, and yet it’s not obvious who can’t carve out a role. Mason Marchment is right there on the Panthers with six points. Some players who light up the AHL — Adam Brooks for example — just don’t shine in their NHL trials. How long does a team let that run before they decide to just hire a guy they know can play? It’s easy to blame NHL teams for not being infinitely patient, but they really aren’t in the prospect development business.
The Leafs need to keep trying. If a player looks interesting, they should play him for real, not five minutes a night. Because you never know, maybe the hero you need is right there beside you, just like in a movie.
Good luck this season, Carter. Kick the Lightning out in the first round if you can.