All these years later, is it fair to ask why Carter Verhaeghe isn’t a Bolt?

TAMPA — What is the statute of limitations on regret?

Can you reasonably bemoan a decision from 2020 when you’ve spent much of the past four years hanging banners and partying?

I ask only because the Lightning could certainly use another dependable goal-scorer among their top six forwards. They could use a player with a relatively low salary, an outstanding plus/minus rating and a knack for scoring late goals in big games.

They could use a player who looks a lot like … Carter Verhaeghe.

Of course, this is a loaded proposition. Verhaeghe, 28, is a former Lightning prospect who was playing in Syracuse at the same time as Erik Cernak, Ross Colton, Cal Foote and a handful of other familiar names back in 2018 and 2019. He was a role player on Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup-winning team in 2020, although his impact diminished after Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow were acquired in trades that February.

And he was allowed to walk away a short time later because of salary-cap issues.

At the time, his departure didn’t even warrant a headline. Not with guys like Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli in line for new deals. Not with Jan Rutta, Zach Bogosian, Pat Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk heading to free agency.

And, what the heck, the Lightning won another Stanley Cup the next year and came up two victories shy of a three-peat in 2022. If anyone was regretting Verhaeghe’s departure back then, they didn’t make a big deal about it.

But today? Well, today is a different story.

Verhaeghe has two goals and an assist, including an overtime game-winner on Tuesday night, as the Panthers have taken a 2-0 lead on the Lightning in the first round of the NHL playoffs. In just four seasons, he has become Florida’s all-time leader in postseason goals with 17, and his five overtime goals are tied for the third-most in NHL history.

“He’s got the clutch gene,” Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “He was born with it, man.”

If it was just a fluke occurrence in one playoff series, it might be easier to write off. But the truth is, Verhaeghe has become one of the more valuable forwards in the league when you factor in his production and his $4.5 million salary.

Since 2020-21, Verhaeghe has 101 even-strength goals and a plus/minus rating of 75. There are only five other players who can claim that (Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, David Pastrnak, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen), and they’ve all been in the MVP conversation at one point or another.

So, how did the Lightning let him get away?

Yes, it was a salary-cap decision. But, no, it was not inevitable.

The Lightning went into that offseason with only $4.5 million of salary-cap space and a lot of contracts to get done. Shattenkirk left. So did Bogosian. Tyler Johnson was put on waivers, but nobody claimed him and the Lightning couldn’t get anyone to bite on a trade for another year.

So, it’s unfair to say Tampa Bay completely whiffed on Verhaeghe, who was a restricted free agent. Tough decisions had to be made, and at the time general manager Julien BriseBois said losing Verhaeghe was not his preference.

But, had the Lightning recognized Verhaeghe’s potential, they could have divvied up salaries a little differently. And if they had to do it over again, I suspect they would find a way to include him in the future core the same way they did with Cirelli, Sergachev and Cernak.

Verhaeghe originally signed a two-year deal with the Panthers for an average salary of $1 million per season. Compare that to the two-year, $2.6 million deal the Lightning gave Rutta, or the two-year, $1.8 million Maroon got or the two-year, $1.475 million Mathieu Joseph got, and you can make a strong argument that Tampa Bay would have been better off investing in Verhaeghe and making trims elsewhere.

Especially considering Joseph, Rutta and Maroon are all playing elsewhere today.

You could argue that a top-six forward is not Tampa Bay’s greatest need, but they did trade for Anthony Duclair a month ago and stuck him on the top line with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point.

You might also argue that Maroon’s locker room presence and Rutta’s work on the blue line were more valuable to Tampa Bay in 2021, and the Stanley Cup banner is convincing evidence.

So, is it fair to point fingers this morning? Probably not.

But if you’re battling feelings of regret when it’s time for the puck to drop in Game 3, I wouldn’t blame you.

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