The ups and downs of a 76-game regular season in the American Hockey League has a tendency, Jon Cooper says, to sometimes leave him at a loss of words.
But regardless of the situation, whether it be following a tough loss or a thrilling, come-from-behind victory, it seems as if the Syracuse Crunch head coach just doesn’t have enough good things to say about left wing Ondrej Palat.
In fact, ask Cooper his opinion of the forward and it sounds as if he is reading from a prepared list of hockey traits.
“He plays at both ends of the rink, he never cheats on the backcheck, he makes smart plays, he’ll get gritty, he’ll show some skill, and really, he’ll do it all if you ask him to,” Cooper said.
Lightning Prospect Ondrej Palat continues to be a top performer for the Syracuse Crunch.
It is an impressive assessment, not only of Palat, but where Cooper is concerned too.
Approximately 14 months ago, Cooper knew very little about the talented winger, only aware that he played on a line with Philadelphia Flyers star center Sean Couturier in juniors.
That’s because unlike his former Drummondville teammate, Palat is somewhat of an unknown commodity.
Drafted by the Lightning in the seventh round, 208th overall, at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Palat made his professional debut in 2011-12 with Norfolk, then the Lightning’s top minor-league affiliate, during a dream season that almost wasn’t.
Cooper recalled that at the beginning of last season, Palat, a native of the Czech Republic, was often shy in his demeanor and barely spoke. Management even considered sending Palat back to juniors, although after recording 56 goals and 136 points in 120 games spanning two seasons in the QMJHL, there wasn’t a whole lot left for the young forward to show at that level.
It was then that Cooper thought Palat piled up all those points in juniors as a direct result of Couturier, but after Palat proved his worth and managed to stick around for a while, Cooper arrived at a different conclusion.
“I used to think people would always know Ondrej Palat as Sean Couturier’s former linemate,” he said. “Now I’m thinking they’re going to get to know Couturier as they guy who used to play with Ondrej Palat.”
With the Admirals, Palat came into his own, earned more minutes, improved as a player and chipped in nine goals and 21 assists along the way to helping Norfolk capture an AHL Calder Cup Championship.
Cooper also wasn’t lying when he said Palat plays at both ends, as his keen sense of opportunism and willingness to nag opponents makes him one of the top penalty killers in the league.
“Last season I worked hard and was just waiting for a chance to earn ice time,” Palat said. “My coaches helped me a lot and believed in me, allowed me to play on the top lines and in a lot of different situations. I think all of that definitely helped.”
On one of those top lines is also Richard Panik, whom Palat is familiar with from back home in the Czech Republic, and Tyler Johnson, whose eight goals are good for fourth in the league this season.
Prior to joining both Panik and Johnson as linemates last season, Palat said he barely played at all and was in and out of the lineup.
“I was on the fifth line,” he joked.
But since skating alongside the current pair of Crunch teammates, his game has “taken off,” Cooper said.
If there is any proof of that, it comes in the form of his statistics, albeit though still early on in the year.
Currently, Palat ranks tied for third in the AHL with 12 assists and carried a league-best five-game assist streak from October 28 through November 10.
Recently, when asked about Palat’s contributions to the team, Cooper sat back, thought long and hard, and attested that he didn’t know where the team would be without him.
No discredit to Cooper, but perhaps it would be more fitting to contemplate just how far the Crunch can go with him.