TAMPA — When opposing teams turn on their scouting radar and point it toward the Tampa Bay Lightning roster, odds are that Ondrej Palat barely appears as a blip.
Attention is focused on Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Valtteri Filppula, Teddy Purcell and even newcomer Ryan Callahan.
But in his first full season in the NHL, Palat is a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate, as he enters tonight’s game against Vancouver second in rookie scoring with 44 points and second in assists with 27. He trails Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon by seven points and two assists, and Palat leads rookies with a plus-26 rating.
“I think he gets kind of overshadowed a little bit,’’ said Stamkos, the Lightning captain.
Palat flies under the radar because of his quiet demeanor and business-like approach. But on the ice the 23-year-old is like a quiet riot, tenacious on the puck with a motor that rarely quits.
The 6-foot, 180-pound winger rarely brings fans to the edge of their seats or wows the coaching staff with dazzling plays. He’s just the hard-working, blue-collar type of player every coach would love to plug into the lineup on a nightly basis.
“I’ve said it a million times, he just plays the game the right way, and he never cheats himself and for sure never cheat us,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s just a quiet guy that goes about his business. He is your poster child for making everybody else look better.’’
In the span of two months, Palat played on a line with former Lightning captain Marty St. Louis and Johnson, whom Palat has played with for the better part of the past three years. In the 35 games the trio played together as the top line, Palat picked up 10 goals and 20 assists. But when St. Louis was dealt to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, conventional thinking dictated Palat’s production would drop, particularly when Johnson was also moved to a different line.
But now on a line with Filppula and newcomer Callahan, Palat’s play has not dropped off at all, with three goals and four assists in five games going into tonight’s game.
“Before the season, I didn’t even know if I would make the team,’’ Palat said. “I thought I might be a good third- or fourth-liner, and I didn’t think about that I might play first or second line with some of the best players. So they gave me confidence a lot to be able to make plays and score goals.’’
Palat is able to do that, because he rarely finds himself out of position. Coaches call it being on the right side of the puck, being able to be in supporting areas in all areas of the ice, picking off passes in the defensive zone, battling along the walls and in the corners. And more importantly, it’s the way he battles in and around the net, not unlike new linemate Callahan, the kind of player who does all the little things that can add up to bigger things by the end of the night.
“He plays really well at both ends,’’ Filppula said. “He plays really hard defensively, he’s really good with the puck, he makes smart decisions and makes good looks for opportunities to score. He’s just a really good player. He plays really mature and has been a key player for us.’’
In other words, Palat is the type of player often overlooked. He went undrafted in his first year of eligibility and lasted until late in the second round, as many thought his game was elevated in juniors by playing alongside Sean Couturier, the eighth overall pick of Philadelphia in 2011, in Drummondville.
But Palat has proven to be more than just a complementary linemate at the NHL level, and he is on his way to being a top-nine forward for the long haul with a steady, workmanlike approach that will only make him better.
“He is still learning, and regardless of what happens, when your compete level is always on red alert, good things are going to happen,’’ Cooper said. “He’s learned how to play the game the right way, so it just makes those guys really, really valuable.”