Watching the New Jersey Devils’ Ondrej Palat, who played nearly a decade for the Tampa Bay Lightning, skate around the Prudential Center in a bright, blood-red uniform is going to be a shock to Lightning fans when the two teams play for the first time this season on Tuesday, March 14 and again on Thursday, March 16, both in New Jersey. It will be even more shocking when the Devils face off against the Bolts at Amalie Arena on Sunday, March 19. With three games in less than one week against a playoff-bound team, the stakes are high.
On a team of emerging superstars, Palat could be the Devils’ most valuable member. He had been one of the Lightning’s most diverse, hard-working playmakers.
Palat Heads to New Jersey
After the 2021-22 postseason, where Palat propelled the Lightning through to the Stanley Cup Final against the Colorado Avalanche, Tampa’s general manager (GM) Julien BriseBois had little room to maneuver cap space to keep Palat, who was a free agent. No doubt, it was a tough decision. But in the end, the 31-year-old signed a five-year deal with an average annual value of $6 million with the Devils.
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After sustaining a groin injury early in the 2022-23 season, Palat missed 32 games recovering from surgery. When he returned to the lineup, the Devils were the talk of the NHL with a record of 23-11-2. Finding early chemistry on the top line with Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier before the NHL Trade Deadline, he is now playing on the dynamic third line with Jesper Boqvist and Erik Haula and has eight goals and 11 assists this season.
Palat has been a steady and stabilizing presence on a team where the average age is 25.9, the fifth-youngest in the league. He’ll also have a chance to mentor two of the NHL’s most dynamic players in Timo Meier and Jack Hughes.
Palat’s Journey to the NHL
Selected by the Lightning in the seventh round (208th) of the 2011 NHL Draft, the 31-year-old is one of the biggest surprises on a team made from late-round draft surprises. After leaving his native Czech Republic to play for the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), Tampa signed him to a three-year entry-level contract.
Palat spent a few seasons playing for Tampa’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliates (first with Richmond Admirals in 2011-12 and then the Syracuse Crunch in 2012-13). While with the Admirals, he played for his soon-to-be NHL head coach Jon Cooper and helped the team capture the Calder Cup. The following season, he joined Cooper with the Lightning, played 81 games, and scored 59 points in his first full season in the NHL.
Extensive Stanley Cup Experience
In 138 postseason games since 2014, Palat has 12 game-winning goals, the most by any player during that span. He has a knack for being in the right spot on the ice at the right time and is equally talented at scoring goals (48) as well as assists (46). He is ranked second in playoff goals for the Lightning, behind only Nikita Kucherov.
Last season, he scored 21 points in 23 games–trailing only Kucherov for the most points during their playoff run. Three of his goals were game-winners!
The Devils are playoff-bound this season and are hoping that Palat’s Stanley Cup experience and veteran presence can lead the young team far into the postseason. The Lightning hope their three upcoming games against their former teammate will be the last time they face New Jersey…unless they both advance to the Conference Final.
If the two teams face off for a chance to represent the Eastern Conference in the Cup Final, the Lightning will expect Palat to provide plenty of scoring and be a calming influence for some of the younger players. He could also score a game-winning goal past former teammate and future Hall-of-Famer goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. It will be hard to face Palat during the regular season and excruciating if they end up playing the Devils in the postseason.