TAMPA — Nick Paul doesn’t take his strong start to this season for granted. It is the way he wanted to reward the Lightning for believing in him.
Following a two-point night in Friday’s 5-2 win over the Blues, the forward has 15 points through the first 20 games. His nine goals are second on the team, trailing Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, who have 10 apiece.
More important than Paul’s numbers are the positions he has been able to fill as the Lightning test line combinations and cope with injuries. He has emerged as the second-line center, plays on the second power-play unit and is a key penalty killer. As a result, he’s seeing the most ice time of his eight-year NHL career.
“If you told me last year or the year before that these are my numbers for time on ice, the (the penalty kill), power play, the positions that I’m in, who I’m playing with, I’d probably give you a little chuckle,” said Paul, 27. “I’m excited that now I get to show what I’ve been trying to show for the last seven years.
“Tampa had some huge trust in signing me for seven years, and that’s something that I’m grateful for, and I want to show them that they made a good decision.”
The Lightning didn’t need to see Paul long to know they wanted him to be a part of their future. Between the regular season and playoffs last season, he played just 43 games for the Lightning after a March trade that sent him from Ottawa to Tampa Bay. But that was enough for the Lightning to choose to sign him in July to a seven-year, $22.05 million contract that provides him with the security he long had sought.
Now he’s on track for the best season of his career after career highs of 16 goals and 32 points last year. With center Anthony Cirelli recovering from offseason shoulder surgery to open the season, the Lightning needed to fill a top-six forward spot. Paul, who saw time as the second-line center last postseason after Brayden Point was injured, filled the spot.
“He’s like a Swiss army knife,” coach Jon Cooper said of Paul. “You can use him in so many different situations. He power plays and kills for us, and he’s played on scoring lines, checking lines. He’s a man of many talents that really is a good fit for us, especially when guys get hurt. He can fit right in.
“Even last year in the playoffs when ‘Pointer’ got hurt, it was Paul that had to step up and play all different minutes. So he’s been very valuable. If you’re going to get 20 goals from Nick Paul every year, that’s a pretty good haul.”
Centering the second line between Stamkos and Alex Killorn, Paul leads the team in even-strength goals with seven. He has made the most of his opportunities, leading the Lightning with a 23.1 shooting percentage and being responsible at both ends of the ice with a plus-13 rating, also a team high. His 51.2 faceoff win percentage is second best.
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“It’s just one of those (things) where things are clicking right now, the confidence is there,” Paul said. “Things are going in the net, but at the same time, they go the other way, too, so I can’t be getting too high. I’ve just got to stay level-headed, just continue to do things that give you chances to make you successful. Sometimes it’s not going to go your way. You may go through a drought, but hopefully not.”
Even though the 6-foot-3, 227-pounder is known for his heavy game, he has worked to become a faster player. He’s constantly trying to improve his skating and making his release quicker, and has shown improvement in both.
“My first step, it’s always (important),” Paul said. “This game just becomes quicker and quicker every year. So skating is a big thing. The other thing is being able to get my shot off. When you have a hard shot, you can’t get it off as easily. You look at the best goal scorers, (the puck is) on and off their sticks so quickly. It’s not just the speed but with how quick they get it off and their placement.”
Paul, who has five goals over his last six games, had his first two-goal game of the season in Monday’s 5-3 loss to Boston. He found soft spots in front of the net and was able to unload quick shots, including a one-timer from the right circle on a power play. He scored an empty-net goal against St. Louis, but his highlight play was setting up Killorn’s goal in the first period to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead.
Paul stole the puck in the Blues end, tapped it to Stamkos, then drove toward the net and got the puck back from Stamkos. Despite losing his footing, Paul kept the puck on his stick and from his knees placed a perfect pass to Killorn in the right circle.
“It’s just huge having the coaches and teammates’ confidence, and from there (it) just kind of rolls,” Paul said. “Hockey’s a big feel game. If you’re feeling that you’re confident, you feel confident with your linemates, and then it really just kind of takes off.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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