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UFA Preview: Ondrej Palat & Nick Paul

Today, we take a look at a pair of pending UFAs from the two-time (soon to be three-time?) Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in Ondrej Palat and Nicholas Paul. Do either of these forwards make sense for the Devils to pursue?

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NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Ondrej Palat has won a lot. He’s a winner. The Devils want to be winners. Will they win the Palat sweepstakes?
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Today, we continue our unrestricted free agency preview here at All About the Jersey. After previously looking at a pair of players from the Panthers, Hurricanes, Rangers, and Maple Leafs, we head down south to look at a couple forwards from the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning in Ondrej Palat and Nick Paul.

Who are they? What do they do well? Are they a potential fit for the Devils, and if so, how much will either one cost? Let’s dive in and answer those questions.

Who is Ondrej Palat and what would he bring to the table?

Ondrej Palat is a 6 foot tall, 194 lb. lefty-shooting left winger who has played his entire NHL career with the Tampa Bay Lightning to this point. He was selected in the 7th round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft in one of former Lightning GM Steve Yzerman’s first draft classes. Needless to say, Yzerman hit it out of the park with that selection.

Palat debuted for the Lightning during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and was sheltered with the ice time he did get, mustering 4 points in 14 games. He stuck around for good in the NHL the following year, as he scored 23 goals and 36 assists in 81 games and finished second in the Calder voting behind Nathan MacKinnon. Yzerman gave the young star a 3 year contract extension worth $3.33M annually. The young Czech winger rewarded his GM’s faith in him with 155 points over the next 212 NHL games and a 9th place finish in the Selke voting in 2014-15. He was also a big part of the 2014-15 Tampa team that reached the Stanley Cup Final with 16 points in 26 postseason games, although Tampa ultimately fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.

Yzerman once again signed Palat to a relatively team-friendly deal, inking him to a 5 year deal worth $5.3M AAV prior to the 2017-18 season. He missed a little bit of time between 2017-19, but remained relatively productive with a .63 PPG pace over his past five seasons. Where Palat has really made his mark is in the postseason.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been the best team in the NHL for several years now and have played a lot of playoff hockey as a result. Palat, who is now 31 years old, has been a huge part of the reason why they’ve won two Stanley Cups and have a chance at a third. He had 16 goals and 15 assists in 48 postseason games during their two previous championship runs. Through Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final this season, he has 10 goals and 9 assists in 20 playoff games. He’s a big game player who has made a career out of coming up in the big moments. Nobody in Lightning history has more game-winning postseason goals than Palat.

Simply put, he has made a career out of scoring big goals in big games, such as this huge goal he ripped in off the one-time feed back on June 5th which gave the Bolts life against Igor Shesterkin and the Rangers when they were down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Final.

He can get to the front of the net, like he did on this ridiculous feed by Nikita Kucherov on June 15th against the Avalanche in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

He can also create just enough space to show off his soft hands, as he did here against the Rangers in Game 1 with a backhanded goal.

He is more than capable of getting plenty on his shot like he did with this give-and-go with Steven Stamkos in Game 3 against the Avs.

Yes, it should be noted that Palat plays a lot of minutes with superstar players on his line. He has played primarily with Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov on their top line this postseason. As much as I like Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt, they are not yet on that level. I don’t think Palat’s success though is solely a product of playing with top-tier players. Palat has had strong possession numbers regardless of his linemates. He has a reputation for making smart plays and winning board battles. He has a knack for being in the right place at the right time to make the right play, and he has enough skill to either capitalize on mistakes by the opposition or convert on chances created by his more talented teammates. He might not be quite the elite defensive winger he was earlier in his career, but he’s no slouch either in his own end.

Ondrej Palat is a winner. The Devils have been perennial losers for most of the last decade, so they should be very interested in someone like Palat to try to help them become perennial winners.

Credit: Hockey-Reference
Credit: Natural Stat Trick
Credit: The Athletic and Dom Luszczyszyn

It raises the question that if Palat is so good, why would he even be available in the first place? Why would he come to New Jersey when he has his pick of any team in the NHL? Let’s answer the former first.

It may surprise you to hear that the Tampa Bay Lightning have a bit of a salary cap crunch going into the offseason. Shocking, I know. They currently have $77.61M committed to next year’s salary cap between 19 players (not accounting $6.875M for Brent Seabrook on LTIR). Next season will be the first year in Brayden Point’s massive 8-year deal worth $9.5M a year. Franchise mainstays like Kucherov ($9.5M AAV through 2027), Stamkos ($8.5M through 2024), Victor Hedman ($7.88M through 2025), and Andrei Vasilevskiy ($9.5M through 2028) are going nowhere as well. In a non-salary cap world, I’m sure Tampa would love to keep Palat and he’d love to stay. Perhaps he even will stay, although he’d be leaving millions of dollars on the table to do so. Tampa’s cap issues aren’t going away anytime soon, with Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Ross Colton, and Cal Foote due raises after next season.

While Palat has been a very strong complimentary piece for the Bolts, he falls short of being a core piece for them, and at 31 years of age, I think he’s the player they have to sacrifice this offseason to keep the rest of the group intact. This wouldn’t be unlike anything that has happened in previous years in Tampa, as they ultimately had no choice but to let Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow walk for nothing in free agency (aside from the 7th round pick the Rangers traded for Goodrow’s negotiating rights). Yanni Gourde was also a recent cap casualty as the Seattle Kraken chose him over Palat and others in the expansion draft.

I don’t have a good answer to the question as to why he should pick New Jersey other than they can pay him a lot of money that Tampa can’t due to their other salary cap commitments. That doesn’t mean Palat will drop what he’s doing to look for suburbs outside of Newark though. There will be a lot of teams interested in him.

What type of contract will Palat get and should the Devils have interest?

Alexander MacLean of Dobber Hockey projects Palat to get just under $6M a year in UFA and that sounds about right to me on a 4-year deal. He’s older than both Johnny Gaudreau and Filip Forsberg and doesn’t have the same level of production as those two so he should come in behind those two. Palat’s big game prowess will see to it he’s well-compensated regardless.

Matt Larkin from Daily Faceoff offered an interesting comparable in Blake Coleman, who is entering Year Two of a six year deal worth $4.9M annually. If Palat was willing to accept an AAV under $5M, I could see Tampa trying to find a way to keep him. I just don’t know how that’s going to be possible with the other commitments they already have. Not unless someone on their roster is injured to the point that they might get Kucherov’d and they find a way to keep the band together another year. Hey, it’s happened before in Tampa and the league doesn’t seem too interested in cracking down on the liberal usage of LTIR, so it needs to be mentioned.

I do think the Devils should have some interest though in Palat regardless. The Devils might have higher priorities on their wish list if they choose to pursue one of the younger wingers available this offseason, whether that is Gaudreau in UFA or Kevin Fiala, J.T. Miller or Alex Debrincat via trade. Palat is a good 200-foot player though who brings a winning pedigree to the table. If you want a guy who brings “rings to the room” experience and can show a young team how to do the little things to win, there are worse guys to sign than Palat. I also have little doubt he would be productive playing on a line with Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier the next few years.

The only thing that gives me pause with Palat is the Devils giving significant term to a winger who is already 31 years old. I think Palat is a smart enough player to make adjustments and has enough size to play a heavier style as he gets older, but they say “Father Time is undefeated” for a reason. Palat shouldn’t be in the business of giving discounts to anyone, but if he ever did, it would assuredly be for the only NHL team he has ever played for and not for a team like New Jersey that hopes to get where Tampa is someday. If the Devils could sign him to a similar deal to what Taylor Hall (4 years, $6M AAV) or Brandon Saad (5 years, $4.5M AAV) got last year, I think that could be worth doing. I just don’t see it happening though and I think Tom Fitzgerald will need to look elsewhere for both skill and intangibles like a “winning pedigree”.

Who is Nick Paul and what would he bring to the table?

Nicholas Paul is a 27 year old, big, lefty-shooting defense-first winger (and occasional center) who was drafted in the 4th round by the Dallas Stars in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Paul never played a game for Dallas though, as he was part of the return that went from Dallas to the Ottawa Senators in the Jason Spezza trade in 2014.

It took awhile for Paul his NHL career to get off the ground. He made his debut during the 2015-16 season, but only played in 56 NHL games through the end of 2019 before he finally stuck for good on an NHL roster in 2019-20. Paul had played primarily a bottom-six role for the Sens, although he did see his ice time gradually increase, peaking at 17:22 this past season. He even earned some Selke votes during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season.

With his ELC expiring after the 2017-18 season, Paul signed a series of one-year bridge deals the next couple offseasons before signing a 2 year deal worth $1.35M annually prior to 2020-21. Ottawa tried to sign the pending UFA to an extension this past season, but with the player and team unable to agree to terms, the Senators sent Nick Paul to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the trade deadline in exchange for Mathieu Joseph and a 2024 4th round pick.

Paul does some things really well, which makes sense since a smart team like Tampa wanted him at the deadline. He has good straight-line speed for a player his size (6’3”, 224 lbs). He’s a respected veteran who is “good in the room” and has worn a letter in the past. He’s gotten better in the faceoff dot, finishing over 50% the last three seasons. He’s a good defensive forward and strong penalty killer, but he might also have some untapped offensive potential. Check out these two plays below from earlier this postseason.

Paul shot 14.3% in 21 games for Tampa down the stretch, so its possible he could just be getting a little lucky that he’s finishing some of these chances. He’s only been a .38 PPG player over his three full NHL seasons, although those numbers have ticked up since joining a loaded Lightning roster, with 14 points in 21 regular season games and another 5 goals and 4 assists in 20 playoff games this postseason.

Credit: Hockey-Reference
Credit: Natural Stat Trick
Credit: @JFreshHockey on Twitter

Paul also plays that heavy, “tough to play against”, no-nonsense style that the Devils need more of in their lineup.

What type of contract will Paul get and what should the Devils do?

Paul will certainly be looking for his big payday here. He reportedly turned down a 4 year deal worth $2.5M a season prior to his trade from Ottawa to Tampa. Frank Seravalli said he’s looking for a $3M AAV over four seasons and acknowledges he might even get more than that. Alex MacLean has him at around $2.3M, but if he’s turning down $2.5M, I don’t see why he’d take less after playing even better post-trade.

Ian Mendes from the Athletic had two interesting comparable players for Paul when he was looking to extend with the Senators....Sean Kuraly (4 years, $2.5M) and Chandler Stephenson (4 years, $2.75M). In a lot of ways, its two different sides of the coin. Kuraly has a similar frame and had career highs in his first season in Columbus, but his scoring rate isn’t all that much different than what Paul did over a full season. Stephenson on the other hand is a tad smaller and a bit of an late bloomer offensively where his deal is now a huge bargain for the Golden Knights.

All of this raises the question of what player Paul actually is. If he’s the player he mostly was in Ottawa and is closer to what Kuraly is, 4 years and $3M per is a little more than I’d like to spend for a defensive forward who will basically top out around 30 points. If you believe there’s some actual offensive upside for Paul though, that same contract is a steal like how Stephenson is. This is where I’d be really curious what the Devils analytics department, led by Tyler Dellow and Matt Cane, thinks about this player. I can only go from what I see watching the games and nothing I saw in the advanced stats jumps out at me, but when I look at Paul, I see a player who has some skill and playmaking ability when he gets space. I also see the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the smartest teams in the league, deciding Paul is good enough to play a prominent role for them in their biggest games of the year. If he’s good enough for the champs, that’s good enough for me to think this is a player worth pursuing, provided the cost is reasonable.

The downside with Paul is obvious. If his offensive production is a bit of a mirage, a 4 year deal worth around $3M is a tad much for a defensive forward. Yes, he has shown flashes offensively, but giving term and money to guys who don’t do that consistently is a good way to get yourself into cap trouble. The Devils have managed their cap well enough where they could afford to take a chance on one such player. Its just a question of which version of Nick Paul you’re going to get.

Final Thoughts

Ondrej Palat brings a lot of big-game experience to a team that is hoping to play in big games sooner rather than later. There’s little doubt that he could help the Devils over the next few years. The problem with Palat is that unless the Devils are the clear top bidder, I don’t see why he should pick New Jersey over the litany of other offers he’s likely to receive. At 31 years of age, I’d be hesitant to go overboard with term. Palat might be a good fallback option if the Devils miss out on other top wingers this offseason, but there’s a good chance Palat is quickly scooped up on the market as well and the Devils would need to pivot to Plan C at that point.

As for Nick Paul, he’s a big defensive forward who would help the Devils bottom six be tougher to play against. He might also have some untapped offensive potential which makes him all the more intriguing. If he’s not taking 4 years and $2.5M annually from Ottawa though, I don’t really feel comfortable going much further beyond that if I’m New Jersey. I think its possible he might be a 45 to 50-ish point player with the type of skill he flashes from time to time, but can he actually be that on a team that isn’t as loaded as Tampa? I have my reservations that he can.

What do you think of these two unrestricted free agents? Do you like what Palat and Paul bring to the table and see either of them as a potential fit? Or do you think both players are too risky for different reasons and would rather look elsewhere? Please feel free to leave a comment below on these two players and thank you for reading!