Summer is upon us. For diehard hockey fans, that means three months of watching the calendar, watching the newswire, and watching the weather. The sooner it’s over, the better. For Tampa Bay Lightning fans, this year’s wait is even more excruciating.
Not only did last year’s magical run to the playoffs end abruptly, leaving us feeling like the Bolts had more to offer, but then Steve Yzerman immediately went to work at improving the team in the off-season.
If that’s not enough to whet your appetite, add in this: Jonathan Drouin, the most exciting and highly touted rookie in next year’s class, is scheduled to make his debut. If that’s not enough… well, I question whether or not you’re a Lightning fan.
But the truth is there’s even more to be excited about. By the mere fact that the Lightning will be a year older, they should be better. Few people outside of Lightning fans realize just how young this team was last year.
The Lightning iced a lineup dominated by rookies in 2013/2014, with a total of thirteen rookies seeing action (and, no, that list does not include Brett Connolly or Alex Killorn, who weren’t technically rookies), and finished the year with far and away the most rookie games played by an NHL team.
So to help get us through the summer, let’s take an in-depth look at some specific reasons why it’s okay to be excited, and dare we say, “optimistic,” for the coming NHL season.
First and foremost in my mind, above even Steven Stamkos being back to 100%, is the fact that we’re about to see a full season with Ondrej Palat in a prominent role on the team. We have, after all, seen what Stamkos is capable of. That’s not really the case with Palat.
REASON #1 FOR LIGHTNING FANS TO BE EXCITED ABOUT THE 2014/2015 SEASON: Ondrej Palat will have the opportunity to show just how good he really is.
Remember this moment. If you watched the Lightning enough last season, right now you know something that the rest of the league hasn’t yet caught onto: Ondrej Palat is more than merely “good.”
For now, despite the Calder nomination, Palat remains Tampa Bay’s best kept secret. Enjoy it while it lasts. Because it won’t.
What people outside of the Lightning circle fail to realize, and some of these people are well-respected hockey journalists, is that by season’s end Palat was probably Tampa Bay’s best player.
Yes, he was better than Stamkos, because Stamkos was only at eighty or ninety percent. The same goes for Bishop. He even appeared to have overtaken Valtteri Filppula as the team’s top defensive forward. The only real competition Palat had for the team’s best player in the final few months of the season was Victor Hedman, and Hedman established himself as one of the very best defensemen in hockey last year. Think about that.
Before you think I’m over-hyping Palat, you have to consider that Palat had two very different seasons last year. Don’t fall into the trap that most non-Lightning fans fall into – they see Palat’s 59 points and think they know exactly what Palat is and what he’s capable of. But the truth behind last season is more complicated than that.
Palat started the year on Tampa Bay’s third line with Tyler Johnson and Richard Panik. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2014, after Stamkos had been injured for a while and coach Jon Cooper was desperate for offense, that Palat was given top line minutes. Palat thrived in the expanded role.
He didn’t look back. And I wouldn’t expect him to look back in the coming season either.
Here’s something few people who weren’t paying attention know, and something that might surprise you even if you were paying attention: Palat scored 44 points in the final 42 games of the season.
That alone puts him in elite company.
Now consider the fact that Palat was also good enough defensively to finish 11th in Selke voting (for the NHL’s best defensive forward). Were there twenty NHL forwards who had a better second half than Ondrej Palat? Probably not.
Can Palat keep up that kind of pace over a full season? Well, the truth is, I doubt it. Those numbers are just too spectacular. But they’re also so spectacular that even a regression would leave Palat one of the better players in the league.
If you haven’t watched Palat, you’ll probably think 70 points is a very optimistic prediction, but it would actually be predicting a step back from the second half of last year.
Here’s one final thing to consider: Whatever line Palat was on from January onward was without exception Tampa Bay’s hottest line. And yet he spent very little time on a line with Stamkos. That’s likely to change this year.
While Jonathan Drouin appears to be the long-term option for Stamkos’s left wing, we all know Cooper makes his rookies earn their responsibility, so, for this year, it appears the leading candidate for that duty is Palat.
But even if that line doesn’t materialize, Palat shouldn’t have trouble producing. Arguably Tampa Bay’s best line all season was the Palat-Filppula-Ryan Callahan line that was put together after the trade deadline. Cooper will always have that line in his pocket.
The pessimists will disagree, but all signs point to Palat scoring about 70 points this year. They’ll bring up his PDO being abnormally high last season, at about 104%, and it’s true that that has a way of coming back down to earth. But you know who consistently has a PDO of about 103%, year after year? A guy by the name of Stamkos who’s probably going to be playing a lot with Palat this year. So don’t be surprised if Palat’s rating stays up above a hundred yet again. And extended power play time with Stamkos could lead to even more points.
If you’re reading all of this and wondering how Palat didn’t walk away with the Calder trophy last season for the NHL’s best rookie, it’s a mystery to me as well. I’m not really sure how one guy can finish just five points behind another, but not make up the difference by finishing 11th in the entire league in Selke voting.
But alas, such is the nature of the NHL award voting, which voting, might I remind you, once saw Alex Ovechkin named to two different positions on the NHL’s annual All Star Teams.
And really, does it matter that no one outside of the Lightning circle understands what kind of gem Palat is? Is it a bad thing that they see a guy who, despite his success, is still “just” a seventh round pick? Maybe it’s a good thing. Because as of right now, Ondrej Palat gets to be our little secret. So let’s enjoy it. Because pretty soon, especially if Palat sees significant time on Stamkos’s wing, the secret will be out.