It was a move many saw coming, but that didn’t make it any easier once it happened. Ondrej Palat – a major contributor in the playoffs for the Tampa Bay Lightning – has moved on, signing a five-year deal with the New Jersey Devils. After having already traded away Ryan McDonagh, the Lightning now lose another key member in their back-to-back championship runs. The biggest question is, how do they go about replacing him?
What Ondrej Palat Brought to the Team
Palat, a seventh-round pick in 2011, came out of the gates on fire in his time with the Lightning scoring 59 points in his rookie season and then following that up with 63 points in his sophomore year. Though he only reached the 50-plus point mark one more time over the next seven years, it was his postseason play that will make him a legend in Tampa forever.
Palat is third all-time in Lightning history with 94 postseason points, behind only Nikita Kucherov (154) and Victor Hedman (107). His 48 goals rank second all-time and his eleven goals in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs tied him with the most on the team with Steven Stamkos.
Let’s not forget about the late-game heroics, as Palat’s 12 game-winning goals in the playoffs since 2014 mark the best in the NHL over the span. As general manager Julien BriseBois said, Palat will go down as an all-time great for the Lightning franchise.
Palat now joins McDonagh, Tyler Johnson, and Yanni Gourde as key members of the Lightning’s championship teams to move on to a new franchise via free agency, trade, or the expansion draft.
No matter what the Lightning do, there won’t be a guy that comes in and immediately replaces what Palat did for this team – and it goes beyond the ice. It goes to the locker room, the camaraderie, and the sense of these players growing and learning together what it means to have your hearts broken before rallying together to win the most difficult trophy in all of sports. While there’s plenty to be excited about with the extensions of Nick Paul, Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, and Anthony Cirelli – there is now a gaping hole where he used to be.
The Lightning have young talent rising up like Cole Koepke or Gage Goncalves in Syracuse and the return of Vladislav Namestnikov – who was sent to the New York Rangers in the deal that saw the Lightning get McDonagh and J.T. Miller – that will help ease the transition. Also potentially waiting in the wings is first-round pick and USNTDP U18 standout Isaac Howard, who is committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth for the 2022-23 season.
The Lightning are going to have to get creative, but that’s something BriseBois and head coach Jon Cooper haven’t had an issue with in the past. If something isn’t working, they’ll find players to fill the voids they have in their lineup – like Paul and Brandon Hagel did this past season.
Hagel could take a big step forward in his ice time and contributions this season. At only 23 years old, he is still growing into his role in the NHL. While he was a 20-plus goal scorer with the Chicago Blackhawks, he found his role in Tampa to be part of the defensive-oriented, shutdown line with Cirelli and Alex Killorn. Now, with Palat gone, it wouldn’t be too crazy to see Cooper move him up to the top-six and take on a more natural offensive-minded approach. As things stand now, it would make a lot of sense to see him be the new complementary guy to Kucherov and Stamkos while the second line consists of Brayden Point, Killorn, and Namestnikov.
In his second year of a three-year deal before becoming a restricted free agent, Hagel may end up being part of the next wave of core players for the Lightning while having only scratched the surface of his potential.
New Look Lightning
With McDonagh and Palat gone, the additions of Namestnikov and Ian Cole, a more important role for Sergachev and Paul, and the continued growth of Hagel, this Lightning team will certainly be different than what we’ve seen over the last few years. There will also be the start of a youth movement in a few seasons, as Stamkos will be 34 when his deal ends in two years, Hedman will be 34 when his ends in three years and finally, 32-year-old Alex Killorn is entering the final year of the contract he signed in 2016.
Related: Palat Will Improve Devils’ Top-6
Soon, the Lightning will begin to look to guys like Point, Hagel, Paul, Sergachev, and Cernak to be that next wave of key players that will keep them in contention the way they’ve been in the Jon Cooper era so far. Slowly but strategically, BriseBois has been lining up replacements for key franchise players so that there isn’t a complete implosion and rebuild like we’ve seen with teams like the Blackhawks and Kings over the last few years. Instead, he’s executed trades to perfection to not only win Stanley Cups but with the best interest of the team five years down the road in his sights as well.
BriseBois doesn’t believe the loss to the Colorado Avalanche in six games, preventing a three-peat, is going to stop the Lightning from contending for the Stanley Cup each and every year and it’s his job to ensure that the roster stays at that high level. Now, with big money deals being thrown around across the league and teams trying to either buy their way into the race or get themselves over the top to be at the same level as the Lightning or Avalanche, it makes you appreciate how great BriseBois has been since taking over for Steve Yzerman in September of 2018.