Top 25 Under 25: #18 Cedric Paquette
A swift adjustment to the professional game and a strong rookie campaign with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL saw Paquette ascend to the big club and play in six total games with the Tampa Bay Lightning, including all four playoff contests, at just 20 years old.
As noted in the Top 24 Under 25 piece covering Tanner Richard, who finished 23rd in this year's countdown, the pair of 2012 NHL Entry Draft centers that joined the Syracuse Crunch full-time in 2013-14 were both expected to be major contributors.
While Richard was generally regarded as the more offensively talented of the two players, it was Paquette who got the results for Syracuse -- eventually earning himself a call-up to the NHL club to close out the regular season. He then showed head coach Jon Cooper enough in the final games of the regular season to draw into the lineup in all four games of the first-round sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, where his inexperience showed just a bit.
Here's how he panel ranked Paquette, a 4th round pick (101st overall) from 2012:
|Kyle Alexander||John Fontana||Clare Austin||Mike Gallimore||Clark Brooks|
Last Year's Rank: 20
There's consensus among the rankers regarding Paquette that seems to indicate both the pleasantly surprising way he's developed as a pro while simultaneously acknowledging the limitations of his overall game.
While Paquette did manage to score a point-per-game through two years of junior hockey with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL, he projects more as a two-way, bottom-6/checking center that can anchor a shutdown line, win faceoffs, and kill penalties while contributing some secondary scoring.
It's safe to say that Paquette's ceiling may be a little lower than some other players that made the countdown, but with a keen understanding of the role he's been asked to play, Paquette is much closer to reaching that ceiling than a lot of other prospects on the Tampa Bay Lightning farm.
As a rookie, Paquette was one of but a few bright spots for a Syracuse Crunch team often in disarray.
Our own Allokago had a few thoughts on Paquette's season with the Crunch for Chairman How's Glorious Army:
Paquette has been one of the few pleasant surprises on the Crunch this season. His speed, development and poise has made him one of the top rookies to watch on the team. In his first professional season, he is fourth on the team in scoring with 44 points (20-24) and was one of three players on the roster to have played in all 70 of the Crunch's games played up until this point. His game matured at the pace one believes Tampa expected from all of their rookies this season, and it says a lot about Paquette that he actually achieved that kind of maturity considering all of the roster turnover in Syracuse.
Put simply, Paquette was a rock for a Syracuse team that dealt with a lot of adversity in the form of injuries and call-ups, perhaps even moreso than can be reasonably expected for an AHL squad.
He scored at a decent clip (0.63 points per game) for a rookie that was asked to play tougher competition than most of the other forwards for the Crunch, and helped Syracuse a great deal with puck possession and shot generation, firing 2.34 shots on goal/game himself, third among Crunch regulars.
The strong play in the AHL caught the eye of Steve Yzerman, as Paquette was called up as a black ace of sorts. But he wasn't just up with the big club to learn from the bench and from the pressbox -- he got some on-the-job training (with requisite groan-inducing gaffes) of what it takes to be an NHL center.
Oddly, Cooper, who all season long had been careful and cognizant of exposing his young guys to difficult assignments, threw Paquette right to the wolves in the four game first-round series against Montreal. When you do that, you take the good with the bad, and Paquette made his fair share of mistakes for a guy with next-to-zero NHL experience:
That puck probably ought to get in deep there, and either rotating back to take the trailer or not getting beat so easily to the outside would have been ideal here:
There's also what coaches like to politely refer to as a "teaching moment" in overtime of Game 1:
It feels a little rude to string Paquette's lowlights together like that after what truly was a surprisingly good season for the 20-year old rookie pro, but it emphasizes something that was quite clear: he's not a finished product yet. These are quintessential rookie mistakes that can easily be corrected moving forward, and by no means should a rough start to a player's NHL career necessarily indicate anything about that player's future.
When Nate Thompson was traded to the Anaheim Ducks, the writing appeared to be on the wall indicating Paquette would replace him as the 4th line pivot, behind Steven Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula, and Tyler Johnson, presumably. But with Brian Boyle brought under contract on July 1 and the lingering question of where Jonathan Drouin slots into the NHL lineup, Paquette's immediate future remains uncertain.
Ultimately, his performance at training camp could determine where he starts the year, but time split between Tampa Bay and Syracuse seems likely no matter the circumstances.