TAMPA — In a matter of weeks, the newest member of the Lightning will get his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And Nick Paul’s game — playing hard in the corners, winning puck battles and faceoffs, making big hits and being tough on the forecheck — is made for the postseason. It’s a big reason the Lightning acquired the 6-foot-3, 224-pound power forward from the Senators two weeks ago today.
“He can play physical,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s just got kind of that playoff build to him, and I know he’s not played in the playoffs before, but he’s a guy that looks like he’s built for it.”
While Paul’s game always has been physical, it wasn’t until he learned to become better conditioned mentally that he transformed from a fringe NHL player to a fan favorite and locker-room leader whom the Senators made an alternate captain.
Paul, 27, was drafted by the Stars in 2013. In July 2014 he was part of a trade that sent Senators franchise fixture Jason Spezza to the Stars.
Paul made his NHL debut in February 2016 at age 20 and spent a few years shuttling between Ottawa and its AHL team.
Paul knew he could play in the NHL, but his biggest roadblock was mental. He lacked confidence, worrying that each mistake would lead to another trip to the minors. He was sent down 11 times and went through waivers three times over his first four seasons.
“You talk to people when they start playing well and (ask) what the biggest difference in their game is, and it’s confidence,” Paul said. “There’s no second-guessing yourself. There’s no thinking. You trust your instincts to play hockey or whatever sport or whatever job it is. There’s no voice in your head telling you that (you) might be wrong. It’s just trust yourself, you’re confident with it, and you just get to playing. I think that’s a big switch that happened with me.”
Clearing his mind
That switch happened four summers ago, when Paul moved from where he grew up in suburban Toronto to Estero and began working out in the offseason with strength and performance coach Justin Roethlingshoefer, whose training regimen included meditation, breath work and self-reflection.
“Nick was a big, able-bodied individual in unbelievable physical shape,” said Roethlingshoefer, who has worked with about 60 NHL players, including former Lightning forward Blake Coleman. “But all of a sudden, because he’s under immense emotional and mental stress, he’s not adapting, and thus people for a long time thought, ‘Oh, he just must not be in very good shape,’ or ‘Oh, he doesn’t have that step and giddyap that he needs. He needs to train harder.’
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“But it was the furthest thing from the truth. He was an absolute specimen when it comes to power and ability to perform. He was just overstressed mentally and emotionally, and needed somebody to help teach him how to use that to his advantage.”
Paul said that learning how to meditate allowed him to reset and block out exterior noise that was affecting his play. It remains part of his daily routine.
“At first I was like, there’s no way this is going to work,” Paul said. “And then next thing you know, it was just an eye-opening experience. And I was able to actually let a lot of emotion go and a lot of pent-up anger and frustration, and even just my drive home just completely changed the way I viewed things.”
On the ice, Paul became an important piece for a young Senators team. Though his game relies on playing heavy, he has averaged around 20 points the past three seasons, and his 12 goals entering Saturday night’s game against the Canadiens were a career high.
He scored his first Lightning goal in his first game with Tampa Bay, on March 22 at Carolina, finishing a give-and-go with Ross Colton with a redirection in front of the net.
“Seeing him again, he’s still the same guy, a great guy,” said Lightning forward Brayden Point, who was roommates with Paul while playing for Canada at the world junior championship in 2014-15. “A big, strong player, an underrated talent, I think. You see his goal (against Carolina), he’s got a ton of puck skill, and he sees the game well, too.”
Family is everything
Paul’s close family dynamic also has helped him overcome his hockey bumps in the road. His father, Ellwood, built a rink in the backyard of the family home in Mississauga, Ontario, every year, complete with lights so his two sons could play at night. Nick’s brother, Jesse, is seven years older, so Nick was always playing with older kids and holding his own against more experienced players.
“That was our life,” Jesse Paul said. “Just come home from school, we would do our homework and it was back to the rink. All my friends were older, too, and (Nick) tried to fit in. I think that really helped him a lot.”
Ellwood was a youth coach and taught both his sons the game. Jesse would work with Nick for hours on faceoffs, making him earn each win. Nick also played box lacrosse, so he learned how to dish and absorb hits against the boards with less padding.
“One of the things we always say about Nick’s game was he was the type of player that put on his construction boots and his construction hat,” said Paul’s mother, Melinda. “When you’re playing box lacrosse, you’re not afraid of getting hit in the corners. And I really think that helped him with his hockey.”
The Senators were interested in retaining Paul, who can be an unrestricted free agent after the season. But as the March 21 trade deadline approached and they couldn’t get a deal done, it appeared more likely that they might deal him.
Paul was with his family when they got word he had been traded, and they were shocked that he went to the Lightning because Tampa Bay was never among the teams rumored to be pursuing him.
“It was not mentioned until the very end” Melinda said. “We had no clue about Tampa, and you know it was just such an exciting time for us to realize that, ‘Hey, Tampa Bay just won two Cups, and they want you.’ "
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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