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Despite long odds, Palat has emerged for Lightning

by Staff Writer / Tampa Bay Lightning

Ondrej Palat sat there and waited.

He waited some more.

As the 2011 NHL Draft was rolling through its second day about 4,500 miles away in St. Paul Minn., Palat was at home in Frydek-Mistek, Czech Republic, wondering, waiting to see if he would take another step toward his dream of an NHL career.

Palat had left his home two years earlier to play for the Drummondville Voltigueurs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In his second season, he put up 96 points in 61 games, tying him for the team scoring lead with current Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier, the No. 8 pick in 2011.

After being ignored twice by the NHL, surely this would be enough for someone to take notice, right?

Sitting in front of his laptop, Palat watched as the second round ended, then the third, and the fourth, fifth and sixth as well without his name popping up on his computer screen.

As a 20-year-old, this was Palat's final year of eligibility for the draft, and as the seventh round was drawing to a close, right after the Tampa Bay Lightning selected Matthew Peca with a pick they acquired on draft day from the Phoenix Coyotes at No. 201, Palat decided he'd had enough of the torture.

He slammed his laptop shut and walked away.

"I just said, 'That's it. I'm not going to be drafted,'" Palat said. "Then five minutes later, my agent called me and told me I was drafted by Tampa. It was pretty exciting."

Palat was selected at No. 208, the fourth-to-last pick in the draft. Nothing is ever guaranteed for a player chosen so late, but it was the opportunity he needed to pave his way to where he is today.

The Lightning begin the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs with Palat, 23, playing a crucial role on coach Jon Cooper's team as a top penalty killer and shutdown forward who can score, forcing his way into the Calder Trophy conversation as the NHL's top rookie.

None of this would have been possible had the Lightning not decided to use their last pick in the 2011 draft on him, which allowed Palat to cross paths with Cooper a few months later at training camp with the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League.

Cooper and his coaching staff were faced with three options: send Palat back to Drummondville to play his over-age year of junior hockey, send him to the ECHL, or keep him.

Palat eventually left them with no choice.

"In training camp, you could just tell," Cooper said. "He was a pretty quiet kid, didn't know English that well, but you could tell the kid's got something there, but we didn't know exactly what yet. We felt as hard as he worked; he just worked his [butt] off all the time, so we decided to keep him under our umbrella.

"We really were going to send him back, but we decided to give him a shot and see if he can find a way. It was basically based on his work ethic. Then, once he got in the door, that was it.

"We opened the door a little bit for him, and he just kicked it open."

That little crack in the door meant being a healthy scratch in Norfolk at the beginning of the 2011-12 season, but then moving up to the fourth line and, eventually, the second line, where he teamed with current teammate Tyler Johnson and Buffalo Sabres forward Cory Conacher while Norfolk completed a season historic in its dominance.

The Admirals set a North American professional hockey record by finishing the regular season with 28 straight victories and winning their first playoff game before losing a game to the Manchester Monarchs, a minor hiccup on their way to the 2012 Calder Cup championship.

Palat exploded the following season with the Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning's new AHL affiliate, with 52 points in 56 games, earning a promotion to the Lightning at the beginning of March, with Cooper following him to Tampa Bay a few weeks later after general manager Steve Yzerman fired Guy Boucher.

"You could tell when he was in Norfolk that he was a great player and that he wasn't afraid, it's just his confidence wasn't that high," said Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas, a fellow Czech who played on the national Under-18 team with Palat and followed the same path through the minors.

"It was awesome to see him doing better and better, going from a healthy scratch to our fourth line and ended up being on our top two lines when we won the Calder Cup. Last year, he was a force in the minors and when he got up here, the 10 games or so we played together you could tell he was feeling good about himself and he had the confidence in making the next step this season."

Even with an added boost of confidence, Palat needed another crack in the door this season in order for him to knock it down again.

When Steven Stamkos was lost to a broken leg on Nov. 11, Palat had five points in 17 games. In Stamkos' absence, Palat had 32 points in 46 games and was given a coveted spot on the opposite wing from Martin St. Louis on the Lightning's top line. That production came despite not being used on Cooper's top power-play unit, largely because Palat was playing on the top penalty-kill pairing with Johnson.

But it was his time spent playing with St. Louis that made the biggest impact.

"He was a big hero for me when I got here," Palat said. "It was huge for me when I played with him for almost half the season. He helped me a lot, talked to me a lot after every shift. He helped me become an NHL player."

When St. Louis was traded to the New York Rangers at the NHL Trade Deadline, a day before Stamkos returned to the lineup, Palat was placed on a line with Valtteri Filppula and the player who came back from the Rangers in the trade, Ryan Callahan, to form an elite two-way line charged with facing the opposing team's top lines.

It's a lot of responsibility to be heaped on a rookie, albeit one who is 23, but the reason Cooper felt comfortable giving it to Palat is because he's watched him take every step necessary to reach this stage in his career, and he never skipped a single one.

"He really works at his game, so as a coach you give him more and more and more and he just kept taking it," Cooper said. "The one thing is he never cheats the game and he never lets you down. It's amazing."

Palat's offensive production this season surpassed his point total from his breakout season in Syracuse last season, but it is his defensive game that makes him most valuable to the Lightning. His sterling plus/minus, which has him among the NHL leaders as a rookie, is what makes him the most proud.

"Before the season if you would have told me I would have more than 50 points, I would have probably laughed at you," Palat said. "But still, for me the most important is the plus/minus."

And perhaps that is why Palat has not received nearly enough Calder Trophy buzz this season. When compared to Colorado Avalanche rookie Nathan MacKinnon, looking purely at goals, assists and points, Palat is far enough behind to be left out of the debate for some.

That includes Palat himself, who doesn't want to talk or think about the possibility of winning the Calder Trophy, feeling flattered people are even considering the possibility.

But that's not enough for Cooper, who was a practicing lawyer before he embarked on his coaching career. Without even being asked in a recent session with reporters, Cooper embarked on his closing argument in favor of his rookie to win it.

"He has the points he has without playing on the power play; he's only played on the first unit of the power play since the [St. Louis] trade," Cooper said. "So he's been killing penalties, in and out of the second power-play unit and played many games without getting any power-play time and still picked up the points and usually has to play against the other team's best lines.

"I know they're probably going to take the hot name. Don't get me wrong, MacKinnon's a stud. If I got to vote and I couldn't pick my own players, I'd pick him for sure. But he's not the first guy over the boards on the PK, our guy is. Our guy plays more minutes, plays every situation, where their guy is more of an offensive threat.

"Don't get me wrong, [MacKinnon]'s a big-time player, but if you look at the entirety of the game and the body of work, what one guy does and the other, it's hard not to throw our guy heavily in the conversation."

Cooper was then asked if the fact MacKinnon is five years younger will tip the balance in MacKinnon's favor.

"I also think," Cooper quickly replied, "seventh round versus first overall."

And that, perhaps, is the story of Palat in a nutshell; seventh round versus first overall, an afterthought that persevered and worked his way toward competing and thriving against the best in the world.

Author: Arpon Basu | Managing Editor

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