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How Carter Verhaeghe’s AHL production can inform us of NHL expectations

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There’s lots of uncertainty here.

NHL: SEP 20 Preseason - Predators at Lightning Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s official. Carter Verhaeghe made the roster for the Tampa Bay Lightning out of training camp. Now’s the hard part; producing in the NHL when the games matter. Verhaeghe tied for the Lightning lead with two goals and three points during the pre-season. Last year, he lead the AHL with 82 points and tied with linemate Alex Barre-Boulet for the AHL lead in goals with 34.

If the Lightning hadn’t been as healthy at forward last season, there’s every chance that Verhaeghe would have gotten called up and made his NHL debut last season. But the Lightning were lucky when it came to forward health and did not need to recall any players. That allowed Verhaeghe to reach those scoring heights in the AHL for the Syracuse Crunch.

Now, with the NHL season just beginning, the question becomes what to expect from him. We know he’s a smart player. He was able to take advantage of AHLers that didn’t have his hockey IQ and that assisted him in being elite offensively. His skating has also improved since joining the organization, making him faster and more agile. He’s got good hands and puck skills. He’s got a decent shot by NHL standards. He’s also got flexibility to play at center or wing as needed for the Lightning.

But how does all that translate to the NHL? And what can other players that have scored at similar levels in the AHL tell us about possible outcomes for Verhaeghe as an NHLer?

Context

Recently, someone asked the question of if I thought Verhaeghe would have a better rookie season than Anthony Cirelli. I gave a simple answer of No. When asked to elaborate, with the asker pointing out Verhaeghe’s point production, I had to point to the fact that they are different ages and that context is important in comparing two players. Older players are expected to perform at a high level in the AHL. They have the experience and have adjusted to the level in a way that lets them maneuver around other players and perform better.

Two good examples from last season were the third and fourth leading scorers for the Crunch; Cory Conacher and Andy Andreoff. Entering last season, Conacher was 28 and Andreoff was 27. Conacher scored 22 goals and 64 points. Andreoff put up 26 goals and 55 points. Both players were put on waivers during training camp entering this season and both cleared without being claimed.

Now, there is a little bit of an age difference between those two and Verhaeghe as Verhaeghe was 23 years old entering last season and playing his fourth professional season. With that in mind, when looking for our comparable players that scored at a high level in the AHL, I’ll be looking for players that were 22-23 years old at the time of their high production. Preferably, I’ll be looking for players that are in their third or fourth professional season, though NCAA players are more likely to have only a year or two of professional experience at that point.

There are 12 players, including Verhaeghe and Barre-Boulet, that have scored at least 70 points in a season as a U24 player since the 2009-10 season. Some will be eliminated because they did it at an earlier age, or like Jeremy Bracco, have done it recently enough to not have gotten an NHL chance yet. There are also a few players that I will cherry pick from further down the list that I think are players I recognize and want to highlight.

Ages are as of December 31st of that season. NHL stats do not include the 2019-20 season.

Cory Conacher

NHL Career Stats: 189 GP, 28-46-74 (Goals-Assists-Points)

Highlight AHL Season: 2011-12, Age-22, 75 GP, 39-41-80

Speaking of Conacher, he is a player that jumps out right away as a comparable. In 2011-12, Conacher recorded 39 goals and 80 points as a 22 year old. This was his first professional season after completing four years of NCAA hockey. He got a taste of professional action at the end of 2010-11 with 17 professional games including the playoffs. Conacher made the Lightning after the 2012-13 lockout concluded, but was traded to the Ottawa Senators before the end of the season in the Ben Bishop deal. Conacher got off to a hot start with the Lightning, but couldn’t maintain his scoring after being dealt.

Jerome Samson

NHL Career Stats: 46 GP, 2-7-9

Highlight AHL Season: 2009-10, Age-22, 74 GP, 37-41-78

In his third professional season, Samson recorded 78 points for the Albany River Rats a season after recording 53 points in 70 games. He made his NHL debut and recorded two assists in seven games. He made some appearances in the NHL for the Carolina Hurricanes in the next two seasons while continuing to dominate in the AHL. But he never made it back to the NHL after 2011-12. He spent parts of three more seasons in the AHL and then wet to Europe for parts of four seasons before retiring.

David Desharnais

NHL Career Stats: 524 GP, 87-195-282

Highlight AHL Season: 2009-10, Age-23, 60 GP, 27-51-78

Desharnais is one of the more successful players we’re going to see on this list. He had a very interesting trajectory to the NHL. He remained in the QMJHL for an overage season before turning professional. He put up 29 goals and 106 points in 68 ECHL games in 2007-08. His second pro year saw him record 58 points and then he followed it up with this 78 point campaign. He split 2010-11 between the NHL and AHL but finally made it to the NHL full time in 2011-12 where he recorded 16 goals and 60 points. He had a couple more good seasons in 2013-14 and 2014-15, but saw his play decline after that.

Brock Trotter

NHL Career Stats: 2 GP, 0-0-0

Highlight AHL Season: 2009-10, Age-22, 75 GP, 36-41-77

An NCAA player, Trotter got a little bit of a later start to his professional career. He left school early in 2007-08 and played in 21 games in the AHL. He followed that with 49 points in 76 games in his age-21 season. Then he had this big season for the Hamilton Bulldogs and earned a two game call-up to the Montreal Canadiens. Those would be his only NHL games though. He spent the following season in the KHL and the year after that in the AHL. After two years of not playing, he returned to professional hockey in Europe and is still playing there.

Seth Griffith

NHL Career Stats: 79 GP, 8-11-19

Highlight AHL Season: 2015-16, Age-22, 57 GP, 24-53-77

This was Griffith’s third professional season in the Boston Bruins organization. He played 30 games in the NHL the prior season with six goals and 10 points. He played four NHL games with just an assist during this highlight season. Over the past three seasons, he has only played in 45 NHL games with eight points scored. He’s continued to be a point producer in the AHL when he’s not in the NHL.

Brandon Pirri

NHL Career Stats: 259 GP, 72-47-119

Highlight AHL Season: 2012-13, Age-21, 76 GP, 22-53-75

Pirri came in at a little bit younger at 21 in this season, but I wanted to include him because it was his third professional season. He left NCAA hockey early and played in the AHL as a 19 year old. By the end of this 2012-13 season, he had played in seven NHL games with the Chicago Blackhawks recording just two assists. He started to get NHL ice time in 2013-14, but never got much of a chance to be a full-timer. He has scored around a half point per game in his NHL career, but has bounced around quite a bit spending time in the Chicago, Florida Panther, Anaheim Ducks, New York Rangers, and Vegas Golden Knights organizations.

Patrick Maroon

NHL Career Stats: 449 GP, 88-118-206

Highlight AHL Season: 2011-12, Age-23, 75 GP, 32-42-74

Maroon should be a little more familiar to us now that he is on the Lightning roster. While there are some definite differences in the players as Maroon is much bigger and plays a physical role, Maroon has produced a lot of offense at the AHL level. Since making it to the NHL, he’s mostly scored like a third line player with some occasional outbursts of higher offensive output.

Jordan Weal

NHL Career Stats: 169 GP, 24-30-54

Highlight AHL Season: 2013-14, Age-21, 76 GP, 23-47-70; 2014-15, Age-22, 73 GP, 20-49-69

Weal came up on my list because of his 2014-15 season at Age-22, but as you can see, he also scored a bunch of points the year prior. He made it to the NHL the next season in 2015-16. However, he only played in ten games without scoring a point before being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Vincent Lecavalier trade. He battled injuries after that and only played four games with the Flyers to close the season. The following season, he split between the NHL and AHL and was back full time in the NHL in 2017-18 scoring 21 points in 69 games. Last season, he spent time with three different NHL teams.

Chris Bourque

NHL Career Stats: 51 GP, 2-6-8

Highlight AHL Season: 2009-10, Age-22, 69 GP, 21-52-73; 2010-11, Age-23, 49 GP, 22-48-70

Bourque has been a big point producer in the AHL basically since entering the league. He started out in 2005-06 with 36 points in 52 games. he followed that up with 58 points and 63 points the following two season before having these two big highlight seasons. During 2009-10 when he scored at that outrageous pace, he also spent 21 games in the NHL recording three points. Bourque has bounced around since 2009-10 playing a few seasons in Europe, but has only played in 18 NHL games since then. Bourque has been one of, if not the most, productive players in the AHL over the past 15 years having played in 794 games and recording 746 points. But, he’s not been able to translate that AHL offensive skill into any kind of NHL success.

These last three players, I’m highlighting as players that scored at a similar points per game pace, but played less games overall.

Jonathan Marchessault

NHL Career Stats: 283 GP, 90-114-204

Highlight AHL Season: 2014-15, Age-24, 68 GP, 24-43-67

Marchessault is perhaps the most popular player to point at in favor of late bloomers. I included this season even though he was 24 because if he had been born just five days later, this would have been his age-23 season. It took the Lightning letting Marchessault walk in free agency and him signing a deal with the Florida Panthers before he really blossomed in the NHL with 30 goals and 51 points. He then went to the Vegas Golden Knights and put up 75 points in 77 games. He added 59 more points last season.

Gustav Nyquist

NHL Career Stats: 449 GP, 88-118-206

Highlight AHL Season: 2012-13, Age-23, 58 GP, 23-37-60

Nyquist has put up some big points in the AHL and had preceded this season with 60 points in 58 games the prior season. Since making it to the NHL full time, he’s been scoring in the 40-60 point range and has become a solid NHLer. This is another good example of a late bloomer really breaking out once he reached the NHL after being an elite AHL scorer.

Alexander Khokhlachev

NHL Career Stats: 9 GP, 0-0-0

Highlight AHL Season: 2015-16, Age-22, 60 GP, 23-45-68

Khokhlachev was a great scorer in his three full seasons in the AHL. But he couldn’t get over the hump in the NHL. Instead of re-signing with the Boston Bruins after this season, Khokhlachev returned to Russia and has been playing there since 2016-17. This is another good example of a high scoring AHLer that never panned out in the NHL.

Conclusions

I’ve tried my best here to bring a balanced look here because I want there to be realistic expectations for Verhaeghe’s offensive production this season. The reality is that the possible outcomes are all over the map from Jonathan Marchessault and David Desharnais to Chris Bourque and Alexander Khokhlachev.

However, what I will say is that I skipped over a good number of names when picking the last few players for the list of comparables. I tried to highlight all of the successful players I could find that matched the criteria. But, many others were skipped because they were players that I either didn’t recognize, or recognized as not being NHLers, and this article was already getting long with the number of players I had highlighted.

Daniel Sprong, Brett Maclean, Shane Prince, Curtis McKenzie, Chris Terry, Andrew Agozzino, Jason Akeson, Max Reinhart, Travis Boyd, Jon Matsumoto, Rhett Rakhshani, Steven Zalewski, Teemu Pulkkinen, Bud Holloway.

These are all players I could have highlighted as well that had similar age-22 or age-23 seasons as Verhaeghe. You might recognize a few names that have been in the NHL recently. But none of them are stars and most of them are either still in the AHL or playing in Europe.

For every Jonathan Marchessault, David Desharnais, or even Yanni Gourde, there are dozens of players that never pan out in the NHL. It is certainly my hope that Verhaeghe works out in the NHL and becomes a solid contributor for the Lightning. But there’s also every possibility that he doesn’t cut it at the next level. Setting sky high expectations for Verhaeghe will just set yourself up to most likely be disappointed.

Instead, let’s be reasonable about expectations. Then if he overshoots those expectations, we can be elated. My guesstimate is that he’ll score 8-10 goals and 20-25 points with 15 goals and 30 points being nice stretch goal for him to reach. That would put him as being a middle of the road third line, depth scorer. Considering the price that the Lightning paid in acquiring him (Kristers Gudlevskis), I’d say that would be a pretty good outcome.