Cedric Paquette is a jerk.
That's not us talking. That's what he says. That's his word.
Well, actually, that's not exactly his word. We can't print the word he uses to describe himself when he is on the ice for the Lightning.
He's a pest. A nuisance. A real pain in the neck.
He's a …
"I'm trying be kind of a (expletive) out there,'' Paquette said. "Get the opponent mad at me. That's what I like.''
His teammates are the only ones who like him when he's on the ice.
"Cedric is the kind of guy you want on your team,'' Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "And he's the kind of guy you hate playing against. You hate him when he's on the other team.''
You compete in games with nifty goal scorers. But you compete for championships with nitty-gritty players such as Paquette.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound wing skates hard. He throws checks. He plays good defense. He goes to all the places on the ice where you are most likely to get a bloody nose or split lip.
And, yes, there's that part about being an unspeakable son of a gun.
Paquette finishes every check. He might use his stick on the tender part of an opponent's ankle as much as he does to shoot a puck. He'll introduce himself with an elbow, a devious smile and a few choice words of trash talk.
If you see an opposing player spitting mad, holding his ribs and yelling at the Lightning bench, chances are it's because of something Paquette did.
"People get mad at me,'' Paquette said, shrugging. "They don't like me on the ice.''
Paquette paused and smiled again. "But off the ice, I'm a good guy. On the ice, I have to play that way.''
That's a lesson Paquette, 22, learned when he played midget hockey for College Notre-Dame Albatros in Quebec as a 16-year-old. He always has possessed solid skills, and he had a decent season. But his coaches gave it to him straight. If he ever wanted to give himself a chance to make it to the pros someday, he would have to become tougher, grittier, nastier. He would have to become that guy, the player who got under the other team's skin, the kind of player who hockey people often refer to as a "ball of hate.''
He gladly accepted that role, though he continued to develop his talent. After all, you don't get this far by simply talking smack and whacking ankles. Paquette scored 31 goals once in juniors. In his first season at AHL Syracuse, after being a 2012 fourth-round draft pick by Tampa Bay, he scored a respectable 20 goals. He had 12 goals last season in 64 games with the Lightning.
But he knows why he is in the NHL.
So, Cedric, why are you here? How would you describe Cedric Paquette as a hockey player?
"Good two-way forward,'' Paquette said. "Some grit. Physical. Doesn't mind going to dirty places. Get the opponents mad. Block shots. That sort of thing.''
Like last week against Pittsburgh when he angered Penguins defenseman Kris Letang so much that Letang ripped the stick out of Paquette's hands. Letang ended up with a two-minute penalty for playing with Paquette's stick and another two minutes because he started yelling at the referee because Paquette had broken Letang's stick to begin with.
"That was the perfect example,'' Stamkos said. "He gets under the other team's skin.''
Occasionally Paquette will add some mustard to his knuckle sandwiches. Like Tuesday night. With the Lightning clinging to a 1-0 lead late in the second period and trying to kill off a four-minute Arizona power play, Paquette blocked a shot and used his speed to race around the Coyotes defenseman and draw a penalty shot. Paquette scored for his fourth goal of the season, which proved to be the difference in Tampa Bay's 2-1 victory.
A shorthanded penalty-shot winning goal. Don't see that very often.
But it's not as if Paquette suddenly believes he is Stamkos.
"Not everyone can score 50 goals, so you've got to adjust to the game,'' Paquette said. "To play here, I have to be physical. I have to be good defensively. I have to block shots. That's what I have to do, and I want to be in this league.''
It's what Paquette has been doing since breaking into the NHL two seasons ago. He came up at the end of the 2013-14 season, appeared in two games and then played in all four games of a playoff-series sweep by Montreal. Coach Jon Cooper played Paquette in all four of those games while scratching forward Nikita Kucherov twice.
"We didn't have a whole ton of grit on our team,'' Cooper said. "From the first time I saw that kid, I knew there was something about him. His character, the way he plays, his tenacity — he's one of those fan favorites because he's the guy blocking the big shots or giving you the big hit.''
It's a style that wins games, but it's also a style that can land you on injured reserve. Paquette missed more than a month this season after suffering an injury. Last week he limped off the ice after blocking a shot with a foot. His feet typically sport a couple of nasty bruises.
"My feet are okay now,'' he said. "It happens. It's my job. I try not to think about it. I just jump in front of the shot and hope it doesn't hurt.''
It usually does.
"When the game is on the line, he's a guy that is willing to do anything for the betterment of the team,'' Stamkos said. "You can't have enough of those guys.''
That's true. You can never have enough jerks like Paquette.
That's a compliment.
Lightning at Devils
When/where: 7; Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.
TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun; 970-AM
Key stats: The Devils entered Thursday one point out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. … They are sparked by the strong play of goalie Cory Schneider, who has a 2.06 GAA. … They ranked eighth in power play (21.2 percent) and ninth in penalty kill (82.8 percent) but had given up seven shorthanded goals. … Lightning RW Nikita Kucherov, who missed the past two games with a lower-body injury, was expected to play on this four-game road trip. … G Ben Bishop will likely start. … G Andrei Vasilevskiy was reassigned to AHL Syracuse to get playing time, and Kristers Gudlevskis was called up to be Bishop's backup. … This is the first of the teams' three meetings this season. The Lightning's last win in New Jersey was March 5, 2013.
Joe Smith, Times staff writer