Prior to the 2022-23 NHL season, the New Jersey Devils made some changes to their complementary lineup pieces in an attempt to better support their star players. Out from the prior season were names such as Pavel Zacha, Janne Kuokkanen, Jimmy Vesey, P.K. Subban, and Ty Smith. In to bolster the team came Vitek Vanecek, John Marino, Brendan Smith, Erik Haula and Ondrej Palat. Each of those players were acquired in different ways and two of them (Vanecek and Marino) have arguably moved beyond being complementary parts. Palat, however, sticks out from this crowd for a couple of different reasons: his contract and his contributions.
Brought in on a five year free agent contract, Palat had known only one team in his entire career before his first as a Devil: the Tampa Bay Lightning. He came at a hefty price tag as well, but with reasons; the Devils valued not only his offensive game, but also his leadership and experience on a Cup winning team. While some might balk at the term “offensive game” being used for a forward with a career high of 63 points (back in 2014-15), Palat is more than points. He fights in corners, pursues loose pucks, and is a general pest without going into Brad Marchand/Tom Wilson-esque pest territory.
As the Devils season got off to a rough start, Palat was a helpful piece in turning it around, scoring in the team’s third game, aiding them to their first win. He would then go on to add two more their next game against the New York Islanders, making him the team’s leading goal scorer at the time. He would go without a point for the next two contests, before being shut down by injury after the team’s October 24th game against the Washington Capitals. At that point, we wouldn’t see Palat on the ice again until 2023.
When he did return, his offensive game was...inconsistent at best. For some stretches, he’d have multiple points across multiple games, but then he’d go missing for a stretch of seven, eight, nine games without any points. What’s concerning is that aside from 2012-13, where he appeared in only 14 games as a rookie, 2022-23 was the lowest point per game average (0.47) of his career so far and the only season where he’s averaged less than half a point per game.
I think if it weren’t for the contract and the chunk of cap space currently being taken up, this would be a non-issue. However, when cap space begins to get tight for a team contending for a championship, eyes begin to wander over numbers as to who is underperforming. If we were to go off of just the regular season, Palat easily falls into the underperforming/disappointment category.
And this is not easy for me to type.
There might be something to the “Playoff Palat” nickname after all. And it gives me hope that this season was an anomaly due to the injury and adjustments of a new team.
While I was dismissive of “Playoff Palat” after a first round, Game 1 drubbing, to the point of wanting him out of the lineup, I’ve got to say he did an amazing job proving me wrong for the rest of that series. At the time of the Devils’ elimination, he was in a three way tie for second in points on the team (seven each) with Dawson Mercer and Nico Hischier, meaning he outscored Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier. He was also tied, again with Mercer, for third on the team with three goals. Not the best totals for 12 games, but a much better points per game total (0.58) than his regular season stats. Oh, and let us not forget these beautiful moments:
Again, the regular season wasn’t good for Palat in 2022-23, but I’m willing to give him some leeway and see what he does coming into 2023-24. He turned 32 towards the end of last season, has exited his prime, and has played a LOT of games (827 between regular and postseason) to date due to Tampa’s deep playoff runs, but I get the feeling he has more in the tank than the regular season showed. His elevated level of play (and points per game) in the playoffs were more in line with the brand of hockey he’s known for. While Father Time remains undefeated for athletes (except Jaromir Jagr I guess) I don’t think Palat is about to decline to a point of irrelevance just yet.
Palat still possesses a lot of desirable intangibles as well as the smarts to play high level hockey. For that reason, as well as a season under his belt within the Devils system, I think we could see him bounce back in 2023-24 provided that he stays healthy. While I’m not going to expect him to go off for 60+ points, I think something in the mid-40s, while maybe getting close to approaching 50 isn’t asking for too much. If Ondrej manages to find some consistency in his offense this season, the Devils could be even better than they already project to be.
What are your thoughts on the possibility of Ondrej Palat bouncing back offensively in 2023-24; do you think he can build off of his play from the postseason? Do you think what we saw last season is what he is as a player at this point? Do you worry that he will regress further this upcoming year? Leave any and all thoughts below and thanks as always for reading!