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The Rise of Pat Verbeek: Looking Back at His Time with the New Jersey Devils

The Little Ball of Hate got that name in the mid-90s, but he started his long, productive, and successful career with the New Jersey Devils. He racked up quite a few points and even more penalties as a Devil up until the hold out that sent him to Hartford.

When people bring up Pat Verbeek today, it isn't long that someone brings up his nickname: "The Little Ball of Hate." It is undoubtedly a great nickname. In an era where initials and shortened forms of actual names are considered "nicknames", it really sticks out as an absolutely remarkable moniker. However, Verbeek didn't get this nickname early on in his career. He actually got it when he was a New York Ranger. Glenn Healy called him "The Little Ball of Hate," as his teammate Ray Ferraro was the "Big Ball of Hate." He liked it, as he indicated in this Biofile profile about him. Even though he only was in New York for one-and-about-a-quarter seasons, it definitely stuck with Verbeek for the rest of his career and onward.

Verbeek enjoyed a significantly long and productive career. He's clearly one of the best Hartford Whalers ever and he was even inducted to the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012. Verbeek was a veteran contributor to Dallas late in his career, helping the Stars win their first and only Stanley Cup in 1999. In total, he played in 1,424 regular season games, scored 522 goals, picked up 541 assists, and took 2,905 PIM across four different teams according to Hockey-Reference. That's a lot of points and hate spread around the league. Of course, relevant to most of us, Verbeek got his start with the New Jersey Devils.

Verbeek was drafted by the Devils in 1982 with their third round pick. According to Hockey Draft Central's profile of Verbeek, he played one season with Sudbury of the OHL. It was enough to get him noticed as the 5'9" and 190 pound center (there's your "little") put up 37 goals, 51 assists, and 180 PIM (there's your "hate") in 66 games. Even as a junior, Verbeek loved to throw his body around. He played like a typical "hard-nosed" forward who would get into the "dirty areas" and clean up messes for goals. There are two differences with that description, though. First, Verbeek definitely wasn't as big as those typical kinds of forwards - and it didn't matter much given that he continued throwing shots in the NHL. Second, Verbeek's initial production in his rookie year in the OHL suggested he was more than just a garbage goalscorer. That would also play out in the NHL.

He didn't initially start with the Devils. Per Hockey Draft Central, he stuck with Sudbury for the 1982-83 season. Based on his basic stats at Hockey-Reference, he did well with with 40 goals and 61 assists. Verbeek even represented Canada in the 1983 World Junior Championship. However, Sudbury didn't make the playoffs and the Devils called him up for six games. With three goals and two assists during that short call up, it appeared he was ready for the next level.

The Devils definitely gave him the chance and Verbeek made a point of it to stay in New Jersey in the 1983-84 season. Verbeek demonstrated that he can be an offensive contributor at the NHL while showing enough grit that he wouldn't be pushed around. In his rookie season, he put up 20 goals and 27 assists to go with 158 PIM. 47 points for a rookie is quite good. What makes it more impressive (and at the same time, sobering) was that Verbeek finished third on the Devils in scoring in that season. Verbeek was the sort of player that fans grew to love, as evidenced by being named the rookie of the year by the Devils Fan Club in 1984. He split time between center and right wing until two seasons later when he was primarily used as a right winger.

Verbeek almost never got the chance to do that. After a not-so-impressive sophomore season in 1984-85 (15 G, 18 A, 162 PIM), Verbeek returned home in the offseason. In May 15, he nearly lost his thumb in a farming accident. An original account of the story is in this Ottawa Citizen news article retrieved by Google. Verbeek successfully recovered, he didn't miss camp, and went on to have an improved third season in 1985-86. Wearing the number 16 that he would be most commonly remembered wearing in his career, Verbeek scored 25 goals, 28 assists, and surprisingly only 76 PIM. I'm not exactly sure why he had so few in that season. The supposed mellowness didn't last as Verbeek was back at throwing shots and his body both legally and illegally in following seasons.

In those seasons, Verbeek took it to the next level. Not only was he older and more experienced, but he got to play on a line with Aaron Broten and Kirk Muller. If you recall, those two were particularly good players for the Devils. The trio was very productive in the mid-to-late-80s for the Devils. Verbeek didn't blow up in terms of points, but he managed to score 35 goals and 29 assists off 143 shots. Yes, he was shooting at 24.5%. You could say he was the finisher of the line, as he led the team in goals. He also was particularly threatening on the power play with 17 man-advantage goals. Of course, he returned to his gritty ways with 120 PIM. The Broten-Muller-Verbeek line was working and they would truly breakout in the following season - especially Verbeek.

Devils fans can look back on 1987-88 as an important season. It was the first season where they made the playoffs as the New Jersey Devils. It was the first season where they didn't have to draft high again as the New Jersey Devils. It was the first season where we can say that they were a decent team. The Broten-Muller-Verbeek unit was definitely an important part of that successful season. Verbeek himself was on fire throughout the season. He managed to get hot and shoot above 25% and set team records for goals in a season with 46. It would be a record that would last until the 2005-06. Verbeek led New Jersey in goals, finished third to Broten and Muller in points with 77, and second in PIM with 227, twelve fewer than Ken Daneyko. He even scored a goal and threw at least one big hit in that famous game against Chicago; just look for #16 in this game highlight video. (And of course, he's at the crease for his goal.) Verbeek cooled off a bit in the Devils' playoff run (his shooting percentage dropped to 9.1%), but he did put in four goals and eight assists. Still, it was a true breakout season and the fans adored #16. While Captain Kirk led the Devils on the ice and in scoring, the Devils Fan Club named Verbeek their player of the year.

Unfortunately, that 1987-88 season would be the peak of Verbeek's time in New Jersey. Reality kicked in on the scoring front. Verbeek truly wasn't a 25% shooter. While he got about the same number shots in 1988-89, he only scored 25; a percentage of 14.9%. He was still playing with and often over the edge; but the drop in production to only 47 points hurt. Muller and Broten also suffered in production, though Muller was still clearly an offensive leader on the team. The 1988-89 season as a whole was a set back for New Jersey. They failed to make the playoffs and no matter what changes Lou Lamoriello made during the season, the results didn't come. They returned in the following season, but Verbeek was elsewhere at that point.

When I did a post on Kirk Muller, I didn't know the real reason for gettnig traded was a contract dispute. Muller held out, Lou didn't appreciate it at all, and so Lou moved him. I'd like to thank Cherno77 for pointing out this New York Times article about the circumstances that led to Muller getting moved. While the article focused on Muller, the author, Alex Yannis, highlighted that Verbeek was the first Devil in team history to hold out for better deal. Lou did not approve and neither did John McMullen. Not only did Verbeek not get a better deal, but he was shipped out of New Jersey. Traded to the Hartford Whalers prior to the 1989-90 season. The Devils must have felt that would have sent a message, that it's Lou's way or no way in New Jersey. That message wasn't received based on the other players who held out - some stayed (e.g. John MacLean, Daneyko), some got dealt (Muller). Verbeek himself didn't get the message in that he didn't hear about the trade until ten days after it happened based on this profile of the Verbeek by the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame.

The return for Verbeek was winger Sylvain Turgeon. I don't believe Turgeon was truly awful. He was an offensive player and he did score 30 goals on 218 shots. He finished second on the team in shots and tied with Muller and Brendan Shanahan in goals. He didn't contribute much in the way of assists with only 17, though. While he bounced back from a shortened 1988-89 season, he wouldn't be the high-scoring player of his youth. Meanwhile, Verbeek absolutely blossomed in Hartford. In his first season with the Whale, he set a career high in points with 89 by scoring 44 goals and 45 assists. Clearly, the Devils didn't win the trade. I'm sure many Devils fans were unhappy with Lou as he dealt the beloved Verbeek, who just piled up the points for Hartford right away. He continued to do so. The amount of production was no fluke as Verbeek went on to score 43, 22, 39, and 37 goals to go with 82, 57, 82, and 76 points respectively with the Whalers in four more seasons. Turgeon would be traded after the 1989-90 season to Montreal for Claude Lemieux. I think that one turned out for the best.

In any case, the hard-hitting, shot-throwing, puck-pounding Pat Verbeek remains in the upper echelon in all-time scoring for the Devils. According to Hockey-Reference, Verbeek ranks fifteenth in franchise scoring with 321 points: 170 goals and 151 assists. That may not seem so impressive at first, but consider that he did all that in 463 games and while racking up 943 penalty minutes - the fifth most in franchise history. Usually, players who spend that much time in the box aren't scorers; but Verbeek definitely broke the mold. With that in mind, I can understand why he's still regarded highly by many older Devils fans. He made his presence felt and he contributed quite a bit even if his penalties took him away quite a bit. Unfortunately, his time in New Jersey was cut short because he tried to stand up to management and he lost. The Devils' loss was the Whalers' gain - and you can read more about him and the rest of his career in this profile by the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame. But he isn't forgotten among the Devils faithful. You certainly can't forget that nickname, even though he got it later in his career.