At the conclusion of Monday’s practice, Tampa Bay Lightning players lined up by the boards at center ice, forming a makeshift tunnel.
The lone player not part of the tunnel was Carter Verhaeghe. He found out quite quickly he would not be joining the tunnel but would instead be going through it.
One by one, his teammates took turns playfully checking Verhaeghe into the glass, an initiation of sorts for the 24 year old, who found out he would be on the team a night earlier after a chat with Bolts head coach Jon Cooper.
Verhaeghe will make his National Hockey League debut on Opening Night when the Lightning host the Florida Panthers at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop).
“I’ve never done that before,” Verhaeghe said about the welcome from his new teammates. “It was actually pretty fun.”
Verhaeghe led the Lightning for scoring during the preseason, putting up two goals and five points in six contests. Last season, he finished as the American Hockey League’s regular season scoring champion after recording 82 points in 76 games for the Syracuse Crunch. He also tied teammate Alex Barre-Boulet as the AHL goal champ with 34 goals.
But beyond just the offensive production he’s shown over the last couple seasons, Verhaeghe proved to Lightning management and the coaching staff he’s a complete player this preseason.
“He’s shown he competes,” Cooper said. “He’s not a perimeter player, like he goes to the inside. His skating’s come along. I think the more he gets used to the pace, I think that’s going to help him and he’s shown that at every level. So we’ll see what happens. We’ve been hit by the injury bug a little bit here and it’s going to be more than 22 or 23 guys that we’re going to need to carry this team to the finish line. You get this opportunity now, you need to make the best of it because when guys start coming back, you’ve got to see if you can find a spot for yourself. It’s an internal competition and Carter knows that, and he’s done a good job.”
Verhaeghe switched from the No. 54 he wore in preseason to No. 23 on Monday. His number for much of his career was 21, but that one’s obviously taken on the Lightning by Brayden Point. The number 23 was as close as he could get.
“54, it was a tough number I thought,” he joked.
Verhaeghe called his parents first thing after meeting with Cooper and finding out he’d be playing on Opening Night. They’ll be in the stands to watch him make his NHL debut
“I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet,” Verhaeghe said. “I think over the last couple of years, I’ve come such a long way in my game. It’s a testament to everyone, all my coaches and everything. I’m pretty proud of where I am today, but it’s not over yet.”
Luke Witkowski also earned a spot on the Opening Night roster, his versatility as a player who can slot in either at forward or on defense giving him an edge over his competition. Witkowski displayed a physicality that had been missing from Lightning teams of recent seasons and combined to form an intimidating fourth line with Pat Maroon and Cedric Paquette in the final two preseason games.
“He had an impact in the preseason,” Cooper said. “For us as a staff, we always knew that (making the team as a forward/defenseman hybrid) was a very distinct possibility that could happen, and he played his way on.”
Witkowski figures to have a better shot for playing time at forward rather than defenseman, at least initially. The blue line is set with seven players for Opening Night following the placement of Luke Schenn on waivers. A couple spots are open now at forward with Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson still recovering from injury.
“I think the more games I get, the more ice time I get at right wing, I’m going to be feeling more and more comfortable,” Witkowski said about the position. “It helps playing with good teammates that are always talking to me whether it’s in practice or in a game. It helps a lot.”
INJURY NEWS: The Lightning will not have their full complement of players when they take their ice for the first time in the 2019-20 regular season on Thursday.
Cedric Paquette, who was upended in the first period of the preseason finale versus Florida and crashed hard into the wall, will not play on Opening Night according to Cooper.
“He’s definitely going to be out for the first few games for sure,” Cooper said.
Johnson is day-to-day, as is defenseman Victor Hedman. Neither of those players practiced Monday.
“Not ideal to start,” Cooper said. “We’re hopeful on those two (for Opening Night) but not on Ceddy.”
On a positive note, Brayden Point wore a regular jersey Monday for the first time since signing a three-year contract with the Lightning and joining training camp. Point is recovering from offseason hip surgery. He won’t be able to go on Thursday according to Cooper, but his availability could come earlier than the initial expectation of late October.
“I’m hopeful that it’ll be sooner rather than later,” said Cooper.