Ondrej Palat: The Lightning’s Forgotten Star

Sometimes you just have to admit when you were wrong. And I can say, with full authority, that I was wrong when I wrote an article titled ‘The Lightning Should Trade Ondrej Palat‘ in December.

At the time my thought process was simple. When Palat went down with an injury in November, the Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t miss a beat, going 10-6 with their veteran forward off the ice. Considering his cost and injury prone nature, I felt that Palat had become replaceable in the Lightning’s lineup, with young forwards like Adam Erne and Mathieu Joseph coming into their own in his absence.

Then, he returned to the lineup and the Lightning tore off a 16-game point streak. Sure, you can credit that to a number of factors, but one player who never gets his due is Palat. As a defensive forward, it is easy to overlook just what Palat brings to Tampa Bay each and every night.

Palat Is Used to Being Overlooked

For as long as he has been playing hockey, Palat has been overlooked. As a seventh-round draft pick by the Lightning in 2011, no one would have been surprised if he never made it to the AHL, let alone the NHL. Yet he always found a way to outwork those around him and force his way into Tampa Bay’s plans.

It started in the AHL, where Palat was a member of the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals that set a record for consecutive wins en route to the 2012 Calder Cup. No, he didn’t receive any individual awards that season, but he developed a strong game utilizing both scoring and defense that eventually led to his role with the Lightning.

Ondrej Palat
Ondrej Palat has slowly carved out a role with the Tampa Bay Lightning, going from a seventh-round draft pick to a nightly NHL starter. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

By the 2013-14 season, Palat was playing full-time with Tampa Bay, becoming a bit of a rookie sensation in the process. Along with linemate Tyler Johnson, he received a nomination for the Calder Memorial Trophy after posting 23 goals and 59 points in 81 games played. While he finished second to Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche, this represented his only real moment in the spotlight.

Since that breakout rookie season, Palat has been relegated to a secondary role in the conversation. When he was a member of the ‘Triplets,’ arguably the Lightning’s single-most dominating forward line this decade, he was largely an afterthought as Nikita Kucherov and Johnson upstaged his play with flashier point totals.

Palat Is the Lightning’s Defensive Lynchpin

The reason why Palat is oftentimes overlooked is due to his defensive-first style. He is the sort of high-hockey IQ player that defined the Steve Yzerman-era for Tampa Bay. As best said by Lauren Burg of THW:

Palat is a coach’s dream and opposition’s nightmare when on the ice. He’s usually the level-headed guy who makes all the right reads and reacts quickly enough to foil any plans the other team has.

You can see this mindset defined by Palat’s advanced statistics. Since his rookie season, he has maintained a Corsi For and Fenwick For Percentage above 53. This means that he is helping the Lightning control the puck, allowing linemates like Steven Stamkos, Johnson and Kucherov to focus on setting up a perfect shot.

Arguably, the biggest factor that Palat brings to the Lightning’s lineup is flexibility. He can be utilized up and down the lineup, playing in every role from top-pairing forward to a third-line grinder. No matter what, he is still able to find a way to play his brand of defensive hockey at both ends of the ice.

Palat Is More Than Just a Forward for the Lightning

There’s a reason why Palat is one of the Lightning’s highest paid players this season. Simply put, while you may not always notice him, Tampa Bay is a better team when he is on the ice. He may not be a scoring juggernaut, but he is one of the reasons why they are winning games.

Ondrej Palat
As a defensive specialist, Palat is often overlooked due to his limited scoring totals. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

There aren’t many players on the Lightning roster who can do what Palat does on a nightly basis. Even in the toughest scenarios, he keeps a level-head, utilizing his high hockey IQ to make the right choices. It may not always be flashy, but it is necessary to the success of the team. And if the Lightning want to win a Stanley Cup this season, they will be looking towards their veteran Czech winger to be one of the guiding forces in that goal.