John Romano: A future star who got away from the Lightning, is now back in Stanley Cup Final

Tribune Content Agency

TAMPA, Fla. — Watching? Watching is not the hard part. You can tune in, sit back and appreciate the first Stanley Cup Final in four years that does not involve the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Cheering? Cheering is not so difficult, either. You can choose to get behind the other team from Florida during the coming days, or you can opt to zealously root against the Panthers.

Second guessing? Ah, now that’s the tricky one.

As much as you cherish/admire/respect what the Lightning accomplished in recent seasons, it’s going to be challenging to see Carter Verhaeghe scoring goals for the Panthers without wondering if the Lightning didn’t make a critical miscalculation along the way.

You remember Verhaeghe, right? Forever stuck in the minors before playing an ancillary role as an oldish rookie in Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup title run in 2020.

Three years after letting him walk away from the Lightning for relative pennies, Verhaeghe, 27, is a breakout star in Florida, leading the team with 42 goals in the regular season and plus-minus rating in the playoffs.

He is a shooter with a grinder’s heart. He is Brandon Hagel without all draft picks he cost Tampa Bay. He is Nick Paul with a better scoring touch. He is high value in almost every sense of the phrase.

So why isn’t he still in Tampa Bay?

The obvious answer is the Lightning have been fighting a flat salary cap for years. There are only so many dollars that can be spread throughout an immensely talented roster.

The Lightning have been forced to make hard decisions every offseason since 2020. And they have certainly lost bigger-name players along the way. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman. Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk.

In the grand scheme of things, Verhaeghe’s departure barely caused a ripple.

And, in retrospect, that’s the problem.

Nobody realized what the Lightning were losing in the fall of 2020. Not the coaches, the front office, the media and, presumably, most of the fans. Verhaeghe looked like a logical sacrifice at a time when the Lightning were trying to manage future deals with Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak.

He was a restricted free agent and the Lightning did not want to run the risk of getting stuck in a contract that would have restricted their flexibility. So they made no qualifying offer and allowed Verhaeghe to leave as an unrestricted free agent.

His original deal with Florida was $2 million over two years.

And that, in retrospect, is nuts.

The Lightning had players such as Mathieu Joseph, Mitchell Stephens and Alex Barre-Boulet on deals worth roughly $750,000 a season back then. Obviously, that’s slightly less than what it would have cost to retain Verhaeghe, but the results are not even close.

Joseph, Stephens and Barre-Boulet have since combined for 18 goals in the last three years. Verhaeghe, by himself, has scored 84 regular-season goals since leaving Tampa Bay. His plus-58 rating the past three seasons puts him among the top 20 forwards in the NHL.

You think the extra savings of $250,000 was worth it? You think the Lightning could have made other roster decisions to figure out a way to give Verhaeghe a bump?

Again, it was hard to envision him turning into a 40-goal scorer at this age. That rarely happens for players who didn’t have an obvious impact in their early 20s.

But there were some signs. Verhaeghe’s skating had greatly improved in his first couple of years in the Lightning’s system, and he wasn’t afraid to go into the dirty areas to fight for the puck.

Playing for Syracuse in 2018-19, he led the entire AHL in goals. And then, in his rookie season, he either matched, or outscored, the guys he was playing with on the third and fourth lines, such as Gourde, Pat Maroon, Cedric Paquette, Joseph and Stephens.

To be fair, Tampa Bay was not the first team to whiff on Verhaeghe’s potential. The Maple Leafs drafted him in the third round and traded him soon afterward. The Islanders kept him buried in the lower minors before trading him to the Lightning for goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis in 2017.

You can also accept the Lightning losing Gourde in the expansion draft. And the trades of McDonagh and Johnson freed up much-needed salary cap space to sign other players. Even the loss of Palat and others to free agency is justifiable when you see the size of the contracts they got elsewhere.

But Verhaeghe fits none of those boxes.

He was relatively young, relatively cheap and exactly the type of player the Lightning have been trying to reacquire the past two seasons at the trade deadline.

Now, it’s not entirely fair to jump on the Lightning for misjudging Verhaeghe. Tampa Bay’s front office has been the best in the NHL for quite some time, with far more successes than failures.

I’d be willing to bet most fans across the NHL would gladly trade their team’s fortunes with Tampa Bay’s since 2015. The Lightning have had a historic regular season, several dramatic postseason runs and more rousing memories than most hockey fans will ever know.

So, yeah, go ahead and watch Florida in the Stanley Cup Final.

You’ve got the right to laugh, cheer and enjoy. Even if it hurts a little.