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Verhaeghe's Role if Stamkos is Sidelined

July 16, 2020, 12:24 PM ET [31 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
On July 11th, news broke that Steven Stamkos had suffered a lower-body injury. Bryan Burns from NHL.com reported Monday that Stamkos should miss a practice or two, but the injury shouldn’t hamper him. However, one need not squint to see the ramifications of a hobbled Stamkos. Stamkos had surgery at the start of March, and, in the lead-up to returning to play, injured himself. The Bolts can be dismissive publicly, but the Lightning’s chances of winning the Cup drop dramatically if Stamkos misses time once the postseason officially starts.

The Bolts need Stamkos as healthy as possible, which is why it might be wise to sideline the captain for at least two of the three round-robin games, since they are fun but have a modest impact on the postseason picture. One would hope that a few extra days of rest would allow Stamkos time to completely mend. However, as Phase 3 marches on, how Tampa Bay might address the injury is being signaled. As of this writing, the Lightning are practicing with Carter Verhaeghe in Stamkos’s stead. Verhaeghe may be a placeholder, but I posit that he could make an intriguing replacement on the first line. I examine the pros and cons of utilizing a 24-year-old rookie with the Lightning’s two best healthy forwards, at least temporarily.

Sticking Verhaeghe with Kucherov and Point allows Tampa Bay to further spread out their talent. The logic of doing this is attractive. The last time we saw the Lightning in action, they were Stamkos-less, forcing Palat to play with Kucherov and Point. But the consequence of promoting Palat to the first line is that Tyler Johnson’s linemates on the third line were Barclay Goodrow and Verhaeghe. That trio may be fine for the regular season, but a Palat-Johnson-Goodrow triumvirate has far more bite. Moreover, the second line of Alex Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-Blake Coleman stays intact. What makes Verhaeghe an interesting choice is that the Lightning would keep his duties limited: retrieve the puck, create traffic in front of the net, backcheck vehemently, and when in doubt put the puck on goal or pass it to Kucherov.

In February and March, Verhaeghe demonstrated notable efficacy with Mitchell Stephens. In 31 games together, they had an expected goals percentage of 59.51. Their high-danger chances percentage was 55.81. One of the reasons they complemented each other well is that they used their skating and awareness to hem opponents in the offensive zone and were unapologetic about getting the puck on net. More accountability and a less picky shot selection would benefit Kucherov and Point. This is especially true in the postseason where the margin for error is slimmer and the scoring opportunities that Kucherov and Point can sometimes hold out for never materialize.

Verhaeghe won’t dominate the puck. He can delve into the muck and do the dirty work. With two creative linemates, Verhaeghe can add a dose of realism. But he is a lease-not-buy solution. Just until Stamkos comes back.

It took Verhaeghe awhile to acclimate to the NHL level. After getting blanked for 16 consecutive games to start the 2019-20 campaign, Verhaeghe finally notched his first-ever NHL goal. The 2018-19 AHL scoring leader followed up this first tally with nine straight scoreless games. While Verhaeghe would score eight of his nine goals this season in 2020, how will the long layoff affect him? Unlike his peers, Verhaeghe doesn’t have postseason experience, and his delay in finding his footing during the regular season is a concern. Moreover, if he is an offensive liability, do opponents cheat and dedicate extra manpower to stifling Kucherov and Point? There were stretches where Verhaeghe and Stephens saw time against opponents’ top-six lines. But this isn’t the regular season and the pressure will be sustained. Can Verhaeghe keep pace with the Bergeron line? What about Ovechkin’s?

I like the idea of Verhaeghe simplifying and shooting from distance to cue up the forecheck, but there is also a scenario where that goes very wrong. Verhaeghe has to straddle the line between not getting in Kucherov and Point’s way in transition, but also knowing when is the right time to test the goaltender from outside the home-plate area.

Also, Verhaeghe has shown himself to be competent off the puck, but his prowess around the net and the forecheck should not be overstated. He is neither Cirelli nor Killorn, both of whom are the Bolts’ best puck retrievers and two of their best at deflecting shots and creating screens. Tampa Bay needs Vergaeghe to impersonate those two, but if he fails to forecheck effectively and is useless at creating pressure in the middle, he will harm the line.

It won’t be shocking to see Stamkos on the ice during the first game of the round robin. He is a veteran who has played through injury many times, and the Bolts have Cup aspirations. But since the preliminary action is almost like a few more regular- season games, one hopes the Bolts err on the side of caution and give Verhaeghe a try. Extra recovery time for Stamkos could be useful, and there is reason to believe the Bolts will not be crippled in the short term by his absence.
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