COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Ondrej Palat steps on the ice, opponents don’t exactly take notice.
He’s not Radko Gudas, Marty St. Louis or Steven Stamkos. Palat doesn’t force teams to keep an eye on him.
But they should.
Palat is like a silent scorer. He’s not flashy, he doesn’t stand out, he just shows up and does his job the right way.
“He’s just one of those quiet guys, he’s zero maintenance, he works his tail off and he’ll probably kill me for saying this but he could make an instructional video for how to play the game the proper way,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said.
With nine goals and 22 points heading into Monday night’s game against Columbus, Palat is creeping his way into the conversation for the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year.
He ranks seventh in rookie scoring and is second among all rookies with a plus-14 rating. His eight-game scoring streak, which was snapped Saturday in Philadelphia, set a franchise record for a rookie and is the longest scoring streak by a rookie this season.
Since being put in a top-six role, playing alongside fellow rookie Tyler Johnson and St. Louis, Palat has taken off, accumulating 15 of his 22 points in the 18 games since the new line was formed.
“He plays the game the right way,’’ St. Louis said. “He works extremely hard for his linemates. He’s a big reason our line has had success, and those aren’t lucky goals or points he’s getting. He’s earned them all.”
It’s been a quick progression for Palat, who led all scorers in the American Hockey League playoffs last season with Syracuse, after being a seventh-round pick in 2011 out of Drummondville in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as a 19-year-old. Once Palat became acclimated to the pro game, he rocketed up the organizational depth chart and was recently named to the Czech Republic’s Olympic roster.
“I think I’ve seen an accelerated progression and I’ve been fortunate and had the luxury to coach him for the last how many years,’’ Cooper said. “He just takes a little time to figure it out and when he does, he adapts. He just gets better. It took him a little bit longer to just figure out that step between junior and pro and when he did, it’s just the NHL step and that was a smaller step for him.
“And what’s really impressive is how advanced his play has gotten. I’m pretty sure he was always looked at as maybe a third-line type of forward, but he’s proven that he can play on any line and not miss a beat and that’s a pretty nice luxury to have — to have somebody in the lineup who can excel at what they do. So I guess the biggest surprise to me is that he has done it this quickly.’’
What allows Palat to stand out, is not standing out. He does things on the ice in an unassuming way, which matches his personality, and he does it all the right way. He doesn’t take shortcuts, he doesn’t cheat the game. Palat doesn’t know any other way.
“I just try to prepare the same way for every game. I just try to play hard and do the best for the team,’’ Palat said. “It’s just been a process. I feel every game I’ve gotten better.’’
Cooper said it all comes from Palat processing the game, playing it the right way and adapting to the NHL.
“He just knows what side of the puck to be on all the time,’’ Cooper said. “It’s almost like he plays the percentages. He knows the right play to make and makes that play and if anything, when you play the percentages, usually you are going to come out on top, and he does that.
“I think as he’s done that, he’s got a little bit more confidence in his game. To a lot of these young guys, you can see it. The league starts to wear off any intimidation and all of a sudden they say, ‘I think I can play in this league.’ And I think that has happened with Palat.’’