A lengthy career isn’t always guaranteed for professional athletes who compete in physical sports like hockey. But for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Ondrej Palat, he’s off to quite the strong start, as he played his 500th NHL game in his career on Jan. 23rd, an affair against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Let’s dive into the improbable start of his NHL career and all that he has accomplished so far.
The Lightning drafted Palat in the seventh round of the 2011 NHL Draft as an overage forward from the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the QMJHL. The 208th overall pick then went to the Norfolk Admirals, who were the Lightning’s AHL affiliate at the time. To say that he had an outstanding first season is an understatement, as he put up 9 goals and 21 assists through 61 games, as the team set a record of 28 straight wins to close out the season. In the postseason, he hammered four goals home and helped on five others through 18 games, leading the Admirals to the 2012 Calder Cup.
Palat received a brief call-up during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season but was then sent back down to the Syracuse Crunch. He led the AHL in playoff scoring, with 7 goals and 19 assists for 26 points through only 18 games. A few short months later, he would crack the Bolts’ lineup out of training camp.
Mama, There Goes That Man
In his first full season in the NHL, 2013-14, he played alongside Tyler Johnson and Richard Pánik on the third line. He became a bit of a rookie sensation, as he finished with 23 goals and 36 assists for 59 points through 81 games played. That earned him a nomination for the Calder Memorial Trophy, just the same as his linemate Johnson did. Palat finished second to Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche. However, it’s safe to say that he blew any expectations of him and how’d he perform in the NHL out of the water, especially since he was given NHL All-Rookie Team honours.
Palat would continue working his magic the following season on the second line as a member of the ‘Triplets,’ a forward line whose play was extremely puck dominating. (from ‘Lightning bandwagon: Just who are ‘The Triplets’?,’ Tampa Bay Times, 06/02/2015) He’d control the puck in the offensive end, thus allowing linemates like Nikita Kucherov and Johnson to set up the best opportunity to score. He finished with his career-high in points so far with 63 markers made of 16 goals and 47 assists in 75 games, but that’s not the real cherry on top. Rather, his selfless style of play allowed Kucherov and Johnson to finish with flashier point totals at the end of the season.
Tampa Bay compiled 108 points during the regular season to finish in second place in the Atlantic Division. The 2015 postseason was the first time he got to experience the uber-competitive landscape of the NHL playoffs. Palat scored the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 3, his first of many important goals in the postseasons to come. He followed that up by netting one in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to give his team a two-goal lead. The Bolts would win that game and make it to the Stanley Cup Final to face off against the Chicago Blackhawks. Palat scored the game-tying goal, making it 2-2, of Game 3, which they went on to win. After some very close games, the Lightning would lose in 6. Palat finished with 16 points, half goals and half assist through 26 games played, the first of many deep playoff runs for the Czech winger.
During the 2015-16 NHL season, he saw a dip in his numbers, as he finished with the same number of goals as the season prior with 16 and only had 24 assists for 40 points through 62 games. That’s 23 fewer assists, granted he played 13 fewer games. The Lightning made the playoffs again; however, they met their match in the eventual Stanley Cup Champions that year, the Pittsburgh Penguins, when they faced off in the Eastern Conference Championship. The Pens took the series in 7 games, and Palat finished with one goal and an assist that series and had 4 goals and 6 assists through 17 games.
He found his stride again the following season, 2016-17, by netting 17 shots and 35 assists for 52 points through 75 games. The Lightning would miss the playoffs that season. And Palat would miss multiple weeks of action due to a lower-body injury. After playing 56 games, he gathered 11 goals and 24 assists, the second-lowest point total in his career with only 35. Tampa would compete in the playoffs and make it to the Eastern Conference Finals like they did two postseasons ago. The Lightning were gearing up to make their first Cup final since 2015. However, the Washington Capitals would come out victorious and win the series in seven games to go on and hoist the Stanley Cup.
Palat would struggle again to find his footing, as he finished the 2018-19 campaign with 8 goals and 26 assists for 34 points. That’s one less point in eight more games for the lowest point total in his career to that point. We all know what happened to the Presidents’ Trophy winners when they faced the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2019 Playoffs, a franchise which, at that point, did not win a single postseason series in its existence. Through the 4-game sweep, Palat managed to get one goal.
This past season, Palat would remedy his lack of point production during the COVID-19 shortened 2019-20 season, as he broke the 40-point mark for the fifth time in his career. He racked up 17 goals and 24 assists for 41 points after 69 games. The Lightning would finish second in the Atlantic Division only behind the Boston Bruins.
This past playoffs was the chance for not only Palat to be clutch for his team, but for the Lightning to prove that the performance of the postseason prior was a fluke and that they deserved to be there. Palat came up big for his team by scoring a zinger of a goal in overtime in Game 2 against the Bruins in the second round. The Bolts would go on to win the Stanley Cup over the Dallas Stars in six games. Palat finished with 11 goals, three of which were on the power play, and 7 assists in 25 games while getting to hoist the cup.
Palat has defied all expectations that were set on him since he entered the league. He earned a nomination for the Calder Memorial Trophy, was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team his first season with the team, and came up big when the team needed him to drill the puck home in the postseason. He uses his high hockey IQ to make the right choices and even in the toughest scenarios to help himself and the team succeed. He may not always be the flashiest player on the ice, but he’s an important part of the Bolts roster and will be for as long as general manager Julien BriseBois seems fit.
Teagan Giselbrecht is a writer who covers the Edmonton Oilers, Tampa Bay Lightning & Colorado Avalanche here at The Hockey Writers. He completed the Television Broadcasting and Journalism program at N.A.I.T. in 2019. During his first stint in Edmonton, he did Play-by-play for the NAIT Ooks Men’s and Women’s hockey teams. He also worked for the Oilers Entertainment Group, Oilers and Oil Kings respectfully. He has covered various sports at different levels including the NHL, CFL, WHL, AJHL and ACAC. Former television news and sports reporter for Prime Time Local News in Lloydminster, he moved back to Edmonton to pursue career development opportunities with 630 CHED. When he’s not writing for THW, you can find him playing sports and spending time with loved ones.