(Note: This story was written prior to the New Jersey Devils game in Vancouver on November 1st)
Back in June, I wrote about Ondrej Palat and what he theoretically would bring to the table should the Devils sign him in free agency. Needless to say, I didn’t actually think the Devils actually would sign him, but when they did, I thought the fit made a ton of sense to compliment what the Devils already had on their NHL roster. Palat has long been a winger who can elevate his game to play with elite players, forecheck hard, win puck battles, get to dirty areas, and do the dirty work while simultaneously bringing credibility and leadership to a young, impressionable team. These are all areas that the Devils needed to be better at after a disastrous 2021-22 season.
Palat looked like a perfect fit once he was moved to a line with Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt after the first few games of the 2022-23 season, scoring three goals. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen Palat since he played in the 6-3 loss to Washington back on October 24th. Palat missed the game in Detroit the following night, was placed on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, didn’t travel to Western Canada on this road trip, and underwent groin surgery on November 1st.
The Devils haven’t missed him to this point, as they’re 3-0 with Palat out of the lineup. The vibes around the team are good right now coming off of a convincing win over Colorado on Friday and a dominant win over Columbus on Sunday. With that said, I think the Devils will miss what Palat provides should he miss significant time.
For starters, there’s the obvious impact that Palat has on the ice. Tomas Tatar and Fabian Zetterlund haven’t looked out of place playing on Hischier’s wing, but let’s be real. Ondrej Palat is a better hockey player than either one of them. Zetterlund has played with a ton of energy and his game might not be too much different from Palat’s stylistically once he reaches his ceiling, but he lacks NHL experience. Tatar has worked hard but is undersized and prone to cold streaks offensively and poorly-timed penalties. I’m not pointing this out to put them down as players, but its a notable downgrade from your top line winger and big free agent acquisition of the summer. Would you take Tatar or Zetterlund over Palat with the game on the line, whether you’re up one trying to hold on and win the game, or down one trying to tie it up? No, you would not.
There’s also the trickle down effect on the rest of the roster. The Devils have went from playing 11 forwards and 7 defensemen back to the traditional 12-6 lineup that we’re accustomed to. Palat’s absence has led to an opportunity for Jesper Boqvist to re-enter the lineup, Andreas Johnsson to rejoin the NHL roster, and Alexander Holtz to continue sitting in the press box.
I want to stress that to this point, the Devils have been perfectly adequate without Palat. That is a credit to how well the rest of the skaters are playing at the moment and the forward depth the Devils have assembled. What you don’t want though is for your depth to be continually tested and challenged as other players go in and out of the lineup. We all know how physical the NHL can be, and that there’s almost never a good time for injuries to occur. You don’t want players who can’t handle larger roles being thrust into a larger role out of necessity. So far, the Devils have been fine in that regard as Tatar and Zetterlund have looked good playing with Hischier and Boqvist is passable in his current role.
Where the Devils will miss Palat the most is though is with his leadership. Its not an accident that Palat has earned an ‘A’ on his sweater in his short time with the club. It’s not a coincidence that the MSG broadcasts made a point early in the season to talk about what Hischier has taken away from having Palat in the room and how he can use that to be a better leader himself.
It’s important to remember that Palat is a former 7th round pick who battled, grinded, and earned everything he has gotten at the NHL level. Nothing is just handed to the Ondrej Palats of the world. He’s been on bad teams, average teams, and championship-caliber teams at the NHL level, playing top minutes and playing tough minutes. He has gone to four Stanley Cup Final and won two championships, playing with aging stars, average players, superstars, and MVPs along the way. He has seen and done it all at this level.
The 82 game NHL season has a lot of ebbs and flows. Heck, we’ve seen that first-hand already this season. The Devils have gone from “must wins” and “Fire Lindy” in Game 2 to fun with stats after the Columbus win. They’ve already experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows this season before playing their tenth game.
There will be points when the puck is finding the post more than it finds the back of the net, there are defensive breakdowns that lead to goals against, the goaltenders don’t look very good, the fancy stats regress, and the Devils will lose two games in two nights or 4 out of 5 games. There will be times when other teams simply outplay the Devils. There will be times when the Devils do everything right but get “goalie’d”. How will the Devils respond when that happens? Conversely, there will be times like this weekend. There will be times when the Devils work their tails off to beat the Stanley Cup champs, and then follow that up two days later with a Columbus game where everything is clicking and the Devils can do no wrong. How will the Devils respond when THAT happens?
Leadership isn’t just about players-only meetings, flipping over the table with the postgame spread, and saying “there’s no way we’re losing this game tonight”. It’s also about being even keel, keeping your ego in check and keeping the boys in line with their eyes on the prize (which in this case for this Devils team, should be a playoff berth). There’s nothing wrong with confidence and playing with a bit of a swagger, but its important to keep in mind that the Devils are still one of the youngest teams in the NHL. Most of the Devils best players are 25 years of age or younger and have had little to no team success at the NHL level before this season. This is where having a steady presence like Palat in the locker room and in the middle of those battles would be helpful. You don’t want to get too high off of big wins, but you don’t want to get too low after brutal losses either. We’ve seen what happens with this group in years past where they have a bad loss, it spirals into a bad week, then a bad month, and we’re talking about fragile mindsets and if this group is mentally weak. It’s true that the Devils have brought in other veterans such as Erik Haula and Brendan Smith, but there’s a reason why Palat is being paid $6M a year aside from the 49 points he had last season.
Ultimately, we don’t know how long Palat is going to be out, but with him undergoing surgery for a groin injury, he will miss some time. The Devils will miss what he provides on and off the ice, and its on them to find a way to continue playing well in his absence.
Do you agree with me that the Devils should not overlook the loss of Ondrej Palat? Or do you think they’ll continue to find a way to get by and win games while he’s out of the lineup? Do the Devils have enough depth on the roster and leadership in the room to overcome the loss of Palat? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thank you for reading.