The 2020 NHL off-season was all about finding value. The flat cap meant little room for teams to make big splashes, with some of the off-season's biggest stars having to take a bit of a pay cut just to find work.
Alex Pietrangelo signed the biggest deal at seven years with an $8.8-million hit and has been a solid presence in the Vegas Golden Knights lineup. Taylor Hall, the only other player to break the $8-million mark, has had a miserable season with a miserable franchise. Matt Murray ($6.25 million, OTT via trade with PIT), Evgeni Dadonov ($5 million, OTT) and Braden Holtby ($4.3 million, VAN) are examples of deals that haven't exactly panned out as hoped.
The Panthers had a tough task trying to replace two of the team's best wingers in Dadonov and Mike Hoffman. Both have struggled in their new homes, but, man, the Panthers scored big in snagging Carter Verhaeghe for two years at just a million each. With 15 goals and 28 points in 35 games, only Jonathan Huberdeau (40) and Aleksander Barkov (37) have more points for a team currently sit tied with Tampa Bay and Washington for first in the league.
See, the thing is, it's not like Verhaeghe's rise is a shocking revelation – he just needed the right proving ground to show his worth. Verhaeghe had a pair of 82-point seasons before turning pro, where he split his time between the AHL and ECHL for a pair of seasons. Toronto was hoping their third-round pick in 2013 was going to be a steal, but moved him and a host of prospects (none of who currently play in the NHL) to the New York Islanders for Michael Grabner.
The deal made sense at the time for the Leafs, who needed a middle-six scoring veteran. But there were always those wondering what the Leafs were giving up in Verhaeghe, and after a rocky time in the Islanders system, he finally found a way to flourish with Tampa's farm club, the Syracuse Crunch. Verhaeghe stole the spotlight during the 2018-19 AHL campaign, leading the league with 34 goals and 82 points before getting promoted to the Lightning the following year. He was solely a depth guy and only saw limited playoff action for the club, but, heck, they won the Stanley Cup. Depth wasn't a problem.
He'd finally get a chance to earn ice time with the Panthers this season, and it's been nothing but thumbs up for a player who wouldn't have had the same opportunities on a deeper lineup. But that type of value has been so important for Florida in their rise to the top of the league despite having a team that's often lauded for a solid top line, and not much else.
Just how good has Verhaeghe been? At 5-a-side, per Natural Stat Trick, Verhaeghe is 12th in scoring with 12 goals and 22 points, with Mitch Marner (25 points) being the only player from one of Verhaeghe's clubs to beat him out so far. Among players with at least 10 goals, Verhaeghe's 16.44 shooting percentage is good for eighth in the league and his 1.34-goals-per-60 is 11th, just good enough to edge out Auston Matthews, one of the league's best goal-scorers. Verhaeghe's expected goals-for percentage is an outstanding 62.69, trailing only Barkov and MacKinnon and his high-danger Corsi-for of 65.28 is fifth.
What does that all mean? It means he definitely deserves to be making more than a million bucks, that's for sure. Per CapFriendly, Verhaeghe's cost-per-point of $35,714 is the 10th-best in the league – but he's the only player in the top 10 25 or older. He's a bit of a late bloomer, but one that many have predicted to play a big role in the NHL at some point, and that's now.
There isn't a strong comparable in terms of value signings from the 2019 UFA class, although Valeri Nichushkin really turned his career around as one of the best depth options on a deep Avalanche team. Robin Lehner's breakout season at $1.5 million proved to be a tremendous bargain for the Islanders a year prior, but in terms of offensive value, the Panthers got an absolute dynamite steal in Verhaeghe – a team that has relied heavily on goaltender Chris Driedger ($850,000) to stay in contention.
Having an elite center like Barkov by his side has definitely helped like it did for Dadonov and Hoffman, but having someone that can dig the best out of its young players is a valuable asset. And Verhaeghe has been everything and more that the Panthers could have possibly hoped for, and much, much, much more.
Verhaeghe is eligible to end up in Seattle via the expansion draft and the Panthers know all to well what happens when you give up a high-quality winger (cough cough, Jonathan Marchessault) so the Panthers should elect to keep him around and give him a healthy raise come 2022. He may not be a huge point-producer long-term, but, heck, with five goals and six points in his past three games, you can't really ask much more out of him, can you?