TORONTO — Before Game 5 of the Lightning’s first-round series against Toronto, forward Nick Paul was one of the only players on the ice for the team’s optional morning skate.
Inside a quiet, empty Scotiabank Arena, Paul worked with assistant coach Jeff Halpern on his play in front of the net. He weaved around Halpern’s gloves, placed just below the hashmarks along the insider borders of the circles.
He took a pass and flicked a wrister, took another and flung a backhand, then weaved across the slot, taking the puck on his stick and swiftly skated across the front of the net before snapping a shot into the net.
The Lightning have gotten what they expected — and more — from Paul when they acquired him in a trade with Ottawa, giving up pending restricted free agent Mathieu Joseph at the deadline. Paul was expected to be a rental, but after seeing how well he has fit in on the team on and off the ice, the Lightning should make every effort to retain the 27-year-old center.
It won’t be easy. The salary cap goes up by just $1 million next season, and the Lightning will go into the offseason cap strapped. Paul has established himself as a capable third-line center, a key forward on the penalty-kill unit and most recently a member of the second-team power-play unit.
Jon Cooper has talked repeatedly about how Paul has been better than he expected, that he is a better skater than he thought for a player his size (6 feet 3, 224 pounds), and he has some fancy stick work to boot. Ultimately, as long as he is a bottom-six forward, his importance lies in playing a heavy game and doing well on the forecheck, but Paul clearly has tools that provide needed flexibility to the bottom two lines.
General manager Julien BriseBois has noted how Paul’s heavy game is meant for the postseason. And even though he hadn’t played in the playoffs until this year, he is comfortable in the moment.
“Just the pressure doesn’t bother me,” Paul said. “When something’s on the line, I like to rise to the occasion. I don’t let it affect me and I feel like it actually brings out a better side to my game. I think playoff hockey, you know just being hard, creating space, getting to the net causing trouble, I think it fits right in for my game.”
And while you never quite know how players will react in their first postseason, Paul has fared well in his debut. He provided a secondary assist on Ryan McDonagh’s game-tying goal in Game 5, the result of some relentless forecheck work against Toronto’s top line with Auston Mattews and Mitch Marner. In Game 6, Paul logged six hits, second on the team to Ross Colton’s nine.
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“It’s just obviously a lot louder, but the crowd gets taken out of that once you start going,” Paul said of what he’s learned for the playoffs. “Beyond that, just a lot harder and less space, less time with the puck. You can’t make mistakes to get capitalized on. So just being hard, but you just can’t take penalties.”
Realizing they will have little room to navigate this offseason because of the salary cap, the Lightning made preemptive in-season moves to extend forward Pat Maroon and backup goaltender Brian Elliott.
That leaves only two unrestricted free agents, Ondrej Palat and Jan Rutta. Rutta has been a mainstay as Victor Hedman’s defenseman partner, but he hasn’t played since exiting Game 1.
Palat has been a member of the Lightning’s core group, a home-grown product who has played a top-line role and been a huge playoff contributor. Even though Palat went through a stretch of 28 games without a goal, he ended the season with 18 goals, his most since his first full season in the league in 2013-14. After his goal drought, Palat finished the regular season with 12 points in 11 games and has scored two huge goals in the playoffs against Toronto entering tonight’s Game 7.
Part of the reason the Lightning were able to acquire Paul — who made just $749,250 this season — is because he couldn’t work out an extension to stay in Ottawa. The better he plays in the postseason spotlight and the farther the Lightning advance if they win tonight, the more difficult it will be to keep him. Just look at Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow as examples of that.
Winning is a good recruiting tool, and the opportunity to claim a Stanley Cup goes far. Both Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare took less money last offseason to fit in under the cap and play for a Cup.
“We’ll find out,” BriseBois said of retaining Paul when the team traded for him. “He’ll get to know us, we’ll get to know him. We will have some important decisions to make after this season. ...
“We do have some cap space. So once the season is over, we’ll look at how we can make the best use of that cap space to maintain our competitiveness going forward and Nick Paul is the type of player we think we can win with not just for this season, but beyond.”
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