It’s been a less than ideal start for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019-20. Many had them pegged as a Stanley Cup favorite, but they’ve been pedestrian at best thus far with an 8-5-2 record, 18 points and three points back of the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. So far, they’ve had production from the usual suspects — Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point — but fifth on the team in scoring is Ondrej Palat.
Palat has had an interesting career so far. In his first full NHL season, he had 23 goals and 59 points in 81 games, and in the 2014-15 season, he put up 63 points in 75 games. However, he hasn’t been able to find that production again in large part due to injuries. He had just 35 points in 2017-18 and 34 points last season, but through 15 games this year, he’s got five goals, nine points and, most importantly, he has stayed healthy.
Although the Lightning haven’t been the team they were supposed to be this season, their limited success so far can be partly attributed to Palat’s play, both with and without the puck.
The Scoring Touch
Last season, Palat missed 18 games, tallied 34 points, but played a solid two-way game. The Lightning surely expected more from a player who has multiple seasons of 40-plus points, though. He only had eight goals all of last season — not including one in the playoffs — but this season, he’s already got 5 goals through 15 games.
Interestingly enough, four of his five goals have come while at even strength. In the previous two seasons, he only had six goals at even strength in each. However, in five-on-five close situations — defined by Hockey-Reference as games that are within one goal in the first and second periods or tied in the third period or overtime — Palat has two goals and an assist. He had three goals in the same situation last year and four in 2017-18. His shot through percentage is at 57.9% so far in five-on-five close situations, meaning he’s got the confidence to shoot and take smart shots.
Part of Palat’s issue the last few years has been confidence, but now that he’s scoring and getting shots to the net, that confidence seems to be restored, especially in close games.
Change in Training
According to Joe Smith from The Athletic, Palat was a noticeably different player in training camp because of a change to his training regimen. “This summer, he switched it up, not doing heavy weight at all, focusing on sprints, cores and jumps. He lost a few pounds but feels quicker on his feet,” (from “Five things we’ve learned in the first five days of Lightning training camp”, The Athletic — 9/18/19). In this league, being quick to the puck is essential, and the fact Palat was able to realize and change that has made an immediate impact on his 200-foot game.
Because of his training change, Palat has simply been more noticeable on the ice, even when he’s not scoring. His Corsi for percentage (CF%) is 49.7 in all situations which is fairly average, but he’s also being used more when the Lightning are starting in their defensive zone, as shown by his 51.1% defensive zone start percentage. Per 60 minutes, Palat is on the ice for 3.6 goals for and 2.4 goals against. This means that when he’s on the ice, the Lightning are scoring more often than they’re giving up goals, a testament to his abilities defensively and being able to get to the puck quickly.
Usage Moving Forward
Palat has largely been used as a second- and third-line player with the Lightning, bringing both elements of secondary scoring and strong defensive abilities. Moving forward, he will likely be a mainstay on the second line, but who he plays with could change. Since he’s a responsible 200-foot player, he could play with Kucherov and Point, two players who are relied upon offensively. Or, Jon Cooper and the coaching staff could put together an even stronger shut-down line with Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde or Mathieu Joseph.
Looking even further ahead, Palat has been a strong playoff performer for the Lightning, with the exception of last season where virtually everyone played poorly. He had 42 points in 67 career playoff games while averaging more than 18 minutes of ice time per game. For a secondary scorer, those numbers in the playoffs are very pleasing, but if the Lightning want to win the Stanley Cup, they will need more of those numbers moving forward in the regular season to get to the playoffs.
No matter who Palat plays with, he’s going to give you a consistent effort each night. It’s not going to be the flashiest play and he isn’t going to be the best player on the ice, but he will almost always be the most consistent 200-foot player. He can move up and down the lineup with ease and opens up options for the coaching staff, and so far this season, he’s been one of the most valuable players for the Lightning. If he can stay healthy and get back to the 50-point mark, the Lightning will definitely be getting their money’s worth.