NEWARK, N.J. — When Ondrej Palat talks about the Lightning, “we” still manages to slip out, then the Devils forward quickly corrects himself. It’s understandable, because old habits die hard, and the Lightning organization was all Palat knew as a pro before signing with New Jersey in the offseason.
No one in the Lightning organization wanted to see Palat leave. But the team was unable to keep him when he became a free agent, and he signed a five-year, $30 million deal to join a young Devils team in need of a veteran with a winning pedigree.
“He’s definitely missed around here,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said this week. “He brought a different energy that teams wished they had. He’s just a great guy, a great family man. His wife and his daughter were close to the kids and the wives. They’re just an unbelievable family. And to see him in another jersey, it kind of stinks because he is the type of guy that you win with. He’s a true leader on and off the ice.”
Palat has seen his old teammates a lot in the past week as the Lightning played two games in New Jersey on Tuesday and Thursday. After Tuesday’s 4-1 Tampa Bay win, Palat drew a crowd in the hallway outside the Lightning locker room, and he also got to catch up with his former teammates at the team’s hotel. He will make his first trip to Tampa as an opposing player Sunday when the Devils play at Amalie Arena.
All of this has taken some getting used to. Asked before Tuesday’s game what it would be like to see Palat in another uniform, Lightning coach Jon Cooper, Palat’s only coach as a pro before this season, put it bluntly: “It’s gonna suck.”
“I got him when he was 20 years old,” Cooper said. “I can’t say enough about what he’s done for our organization. Gosh, I went to his wedding.”
Palat left Tampa as a fan favorite. He was a home-grown success story, going from a seventh-round draft pick to a two-time Stanley Cup champion.
As a first-line left wing, he did a lot of the dirty work for stars Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov on the championship teams. Coaches used Palat’s fundamentally-sound game in the film room as an example of the right way to play. And in the postseason, few players scored as many important goals in critical times as Palat, who had 27 goals in the past three Lightning playoff runs, including eight game-winners.
“You look at the number of game-winning goals he’s had in the playoffs, the bigger the games get, usually the better he gets,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “So he has been invaluable. The way he prepares, the way he practices, the way he plays, you understand that’s a winning pedigree.”
In New Jersey, he wears the alternate captain A on his jersey. Being in a room thirsting for veteran leadership and knowing what it takes to win has drawn out a different version of Palat.
“In Tampa we had so many great leaders — or they had so many great leaders,” Palat said. “So here, the group was younger and they’re asking questions, they listen to me. I’m not a guy that’s gonna talk too much in the room, but when there’s something that maybe needs to be said, I’ll say it. But they’re great guys, great kids and they’re working hard to be better.”
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Six games into the season, a groin injury that required surgery sidelined him for more than 10 weeks, but since returning on Jan. 5, the Devils have been one of the league’s best teams. They entered Saturday’s games with 95 points, third-most in the league and one point behind Carolina for the Metropolitan Division lead.
“I don’t have 30 goals, but I’m just trying to do the little things right,” Palat said. “That’s what I said I’m gonna do when I signed here. It’s been tough with my injury and the groin surgery. It kept me out for a while, but guys were playing well, and now we’re in a great spot and I think everybody’s excited for the playoffs.”
Even though Palat, who turns 32 this month, has played in just 36 games, he’s made a huge impact on a team that is the third-youngest in the Eastern Conference (average age of 26, according to CapFriendly.com).
“He’s that kind of a player that comes up big when the moment needs him the most,” said Devils forward Jesper Bratt, a 24-year-old who is one of Palat’s new linemates. “And this is the time of the season, he’s been playing great for us and he’s been helping us in the room so much as a younger team to kind of bring that calm, winner mentality. He’s an awesome guy to be around.
“I feel like he’s a natural leader. He’s not the guy that always talks about things the loudest in the room, but he’s that kind of a guy that when he says something or he talks, we listen to him and respect what he has to say.”
Sunday back in Tampa, Palat will be greeted with a video tribute early in the game. He has seen many of those when former players return for the first time, and even though he said he hasn’t thought about it much, he espects it to be special.
“It’s gonna be maybe a little emotional for me,” Palat said. “I spent a lot of time there and always when there’s a tribute for other players like (Tyler Johnson or Yanni Gourde), it’s awesome. You got chills when you watched it. So hopefully we can see something like that. But it’ll be cool, very cool.”
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos expects Palat to receive one of the best receptions yet.
“It’s got to be near the top of all the ones that we’ve had,” Stamkos said. “(Johnson’s) was probably the biggest in terms of he was there for the longest. He came up and he grew up with this team, and Pally’s the same. We know, and I think the fans know, how important he was to our culture, in our city and in the success that we had. So I think it’s gonna be really good.”
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