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Carter Verhaeghe

Carter Verhaeghe scored 18 goals and 44 points in 67 games for the Niagara IceDogs this past season.  (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Carter Verhaeghe scored 18 goals and 44 points in 67 games for the Niagara IceDogs this past season. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

As Jim Hughes cautioned the assembled media, we’re talking about hockey in July here. Having said that, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ director of player development was pleased with what he saw from 2013 third-rounder Carter Verhaeghe, who scored two nice goals and added a showstopper in the shootout during a development camp scrimmage last week.

“You can see the skill sets that he has,” Hughes said. “He’s smart; he thinks the game. When you project it out, when he gets stronger and older, he’s going to be an elite player at the OHL level. You’re looking 18 months down the road with him.”

Verhaeghe has played for the Niagara IceDogs for the past two seasons, but you’d be forgiven if you hadn’t heard much hype surrounding the young pivot. Nearly one-quarter of his 44 points came in the last six games of the season and he’s been overshadowed during his IceDogs career by bigger and older names such as Ryan Strome, Dougie Hamilton, Brett Ritchie and Mark Visentin. Next year will be a different story in Niagara, however.

“Some of the big guys are leaving so I’m going to develop into a different role there,” Verhaeghe said. “I’m gonna go with it and try to make the most of my opportunity.”

And while the IceDogs may not be competing for as many Eastern Conference titles in the near future, they will have talented youngsters such as Brendan Perlini, Aaron Haydon, Brett Moran and of course, Verhaeghe, stepping into larger roles.

“They’re known for playing their older players,” Hughes said. “Now that Strome and some of that crew has moved out, Verhaeghe will step right in and probably be in the one spot. He’ll see big minutes on the power play and that’s all part of the progression of junior hockey. There’s no doubt in our minds he’ll be a 100-point guy in that league. I don’t know if it will be this year, but it’ll be soon.”

For Verhaeghe’s part, he was glad to have a gaggle of first-rounders and world junior alum around to teach him the ropes.

“I learned so much,” he said. “They were professionals on and off the ice, they were accountable for everything they did and helped me so much.”

Far from a finished product, Verhaeghe is an offensive dynamo who still needs to smooth out other facets of his game. Working on the defensive end of the ice is one, while simply getting stronger and more courageous will assumedly come as he builds muscle on his 6-foot-1, 181-pound frame. The native of nearby Waterdown, Ont., has his own to-do list, as well.

“I want to develop better skating habits; getting going faster is my main focus,” Verhaeghe said. “But I can work on everything, whether it’s offense, defense or just being a team player.”

From his rookie season to his sophomore campaign, Verhaeghe jumped from 16 points to 44 and as Hughes pointed out, there is a lot more ice time to seize now that Niagara’s golden era of stars has turned pro. With the Leafs trading their second-round pick to Chicago for Dave Bolland, Verhaeghe is the highest prize from 2013 after first-rounder Frederik Gauthier – himself a long-term project out of the Rimouski Oceanic stable.

With Niagara just a short drive from Toronto, Leafs fans can see just how quick the dynamic Verhaeghe is developing next season.

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