When the Tampa Bay Lightning acquired Brandon Hagel from the Chicago Blackhawks mere days before the 2022 Trade Deadline, fans rightfully assumed that would be the team’s most impactful move of the season. They paid a premium for Hagel after all, and as such general manager Julien BriseBois didn’t appear to have the resources left to make another deal.
However, not being one to rest on his laurels, BriseBois still found a way to make one more move before the deadline. He pulled off a swap with the Ottawa Senators of stalled starters on expiring contracts that saw Mathieu Joseph and a fourth-round pick exchanged for Nick Paul.
Nick Paul Brought Size and Grit to the Lightning
At 6-foot-3, 224 pounds, there were clear reasons why BriseBois had an interest in Paul. While his scoring numbers and advanced statistics weren’t anything to write home about, he had the build of an impact player in the postseason. Given their need for a tough, bottom-six forward to take over chippy minutes on the third line like Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman the previous two seasons, he was a perfect low-risk, mid-reward deadline acquisition.
For his part, Paul quickly broke through those expectations. In 21 games played before the end of the regular season, he posted five goals and 14 points, which brought his regular-season total to a career-high 16 goals and 32 points.
He followed that up with a stellar playoff run, posting nine points in 23 games while acting as a jack-of-all-trades for the Lightning. He started everywhere in the lineup, from a third-line grinder when the team was healthy, to a top-line playmaker when injuries struck. He also played a key role on the penalty kill, where he took on the second-most short-handed ice time for the team each night and he even saw some time on the powerplay as well.
Despite coming up short in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, it was clear that re-signing Paul was a priority for Tampa Bay. Even if the 27-year-old forward was coming off a career year, he just fit in with the team perfectly in a way few new players had in the past. Apparently, BriseBois agreed with this assessment, and he was able to lock down Paul to a seven-year, $3.15 million per year extension.
While this contract was roughly market value for Paul, there was some reason for concern given how limited his sample size was with the Lightning. Players go on strong postseason runs and sign big contracts all the time, so there was a non-zero chance that he would regress significantly in a full season in Tampa Bay.
Instead, Paul has excelled during the 2022-23 regular season so far, and his play on the ice has been a significant reason why the Lightning are keeping up in an incredibly tough division.
Paul Has Stepped Into a Larger Role Due to Injuries
To start the 2022-23 NHL season, Paul was asked to take on a different role with the Lightning. With Anthony Cirelli out long-term due to a shoulder injury, this left an opening at the second-line center that needed to be filled. While it took a few games to get these lines together, once he found his place between Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn, magic started to happen.
With a puck-hound centerman flanked by an elite shooter and a 20-goal scoring power-forward, the Lightning’s second line has perfect balance. Paul is able to drive play with his skating and passing, Killorn is able to use his size and ability to create room on the ice and win board battles for the puck, and Stamkos is able to be, well, one of the best shooters in the game to bury chances. This has allowed him to score nine goals and 16 points in just 22 games so far this season, which is well on pace to set career highs in all categories once again.
Paul also takes on the second-most time on the penalty kill for a forward, along with roughly a minute of ice time each night on the second powerplay unit, showing his value as a special teams player.
In all, this start has been even better than the most optimistic opinions of Paul. While many believed he could be great, I know I didn’t think he would slot in so well on the second line. He seems to have found his home with the Lightning, and if he continues playing well, he will reward them for his big contract extension.
Cirelli’s Return Could Lower Paul’s Ceiling
Now, there is one thing that could slow down Paul’s success with Tampa Bay. Once Cirelli returns from injury, he will likely look to take back over his role as a second-line centerman. If that happens, it would push him down the lineup, into the less valuable position in the bottom six.
While you can argue that Paul should keep his spot with how well he is playing, even if he gets pushed down to the third line, he can still find a way to impact the game each and every night. This sort of depth is how you win in the postseason, so the Lightning won’t mind where he plays in their lineup as long as he continues playing with that gritty heart that has made him a mainstay in their top-six so far this season.
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Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.