As a seventh-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning back in 2011, Ondrej Palat has done nothing but exceed expectations throughout his time with the franchise. In just a few short years, he went from an NHL long-shot to the Lightning’s top-line and a Calder Trophy nomination.
Over the years, though, Palat has found himself as a point of contention among the fanbase. When healthy, he is one of the Lightning’s most dominating forwards, mixing both stout defensive play with an offensive upside that can chip in 50-plus points a season.
Palat hasn’t been consistently healthy for a while, which has lowered his ice-time and overall effectiveness in recent years. This has only exasperated the fact that he has not been able to live up to the $5.3-million contract extension he signed in 2017, which makes him one of the Lightning’s highest paid players over the next three years.
So, with these factors in mind, could Palat find himself as a cap casualty, or will he remain with the Lightning squad that drafted him all those years ago?
The Case Against Keeping Palat
The whole reason why Palat broke into the Lightning’s top line as a rookie was due to his intangibles. He had one of the highest hockey IQ’s on the team, which translated to a puck-control first mentality that Tampa Bay was simply lacking at the time. This made him irreplaceable in the lineup, as he could cover up the mistakes of his more offensive-minded linemates.
Over the years, though, the Lightning have improved in this area dramatically. With young talents like Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli bringing strong two-way games to the franchise, and the likes of Steven Stamkos developing a more complete game, Palat has become a bit redundant in the lineup.
This doesn’t mean that he is necessarily a bad player now, but that he’s just not as noticeable as he once was on the ice.
If Palat had closer to a $4-million cap hit, he still may be worth keeping around for his experience and leadership abilities. At $5.3 million, he really is more of a luxury that the Lightning may be better off without for the future.
Making the Case for Palat
Despite his recent injuries struggles, the Lightning simply have been a better team when Palat is healthy. Whenever he misses time to an injury, Tampa Bay’s play dips, as the team attempts to adjust without one of their keystone players.
When Palat returns from injury, the Lightning suddenly rip off a multi-game win streak. While this isn’t an exact science, it keeps happening year after year. Palat gets injured, Tampa Bay struggles, Palat returns, Lightning win the next few games.
Palat’s advanced statistics also back up his play on the ice. As I wrote in a previous article:
Since his rookie season, Palat 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, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov to focus on setting up a perfect shot.
What Should Lightning Do with Palat?
Out of anyone potentially on the Lightning’s trade block this offseason, Palat’s value could be the most difficult to gauge. When healthy, he is an expensive but invaluable key to the team’s success. However, if he is playing at anything other than 100 percent health, his play drops off precipitously.
If the Lightning are willing to throw in a draft pick or retain some salary, they may be able to move Palat’s contract to a team needing some veteran leadership. If not, they could do worse than retain their Czech winger, especially if he can get back to full health in the next season.
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.