Top 25 Under 25: #3 Ondrej Palat

The 23-year old Czech winger went from 7th round pick to AHL standout to Calder Trophy finalist in the course of a year. Now he's poised to stick on the top line with Steven Stamkos in 2014-15.

It's hard to overstate just how successful Ondrej Palat was as an NHL rookie.

He scored 23 goals and added 36 assists for 59 points. The offensive numbers landed him as a Calder Trophy finalist alongside 1st overall pick Nathan MacKinnon and teammate Tyler Johnson.

His defensive acumen and two-way play earned him a handful of Selke Trophy votes -- he finished in 11th in that trophy's voting, ahead of more well-known defensive forwards like Pavel Datsyuk, Frans Nielsen, and Brandon Dubinsky. He was the total package for the Lightning, playing in all situations: big 5v5 minutes, power play, and penalty kill.

Here's how the panel ranked the breakout star from a season ago:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clare Austin Mike Gallimore Clark Brooks
3 4 4 9 3

And, from our player season review series earlier this summer:

Without a doubt, Palat exceeded everyone's expectations. Regardless of his breakout performance not being as apparent until the later half of the season, the 23-year-old was a major contributor that helped the Lightning make it back to the postseason for the first time in 3 seasons. During the absence of Steven Stamkos, Palat was crucial in stepping up to fill a much needed scoring role for the Bolts. This resulted in him finishing out the season on the 1st line and racking up the most points (59) in the regular season on the team. Palat's exceptional play also earned him a nomination for the Calder Memorial Trophy, the NHL's rookie of the year.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have made a habit in the Steve Yzerman/Al Murray era of drafting overage European skaters out of the CHL late in the draft. These guys tend to be overlooked for whatever reason; size, lack of scouting overseas, etc. Palat was a 7th round pick that, coming out of the draft, many thought was benefitting from riding shotgun with much more highly touted prospect Sean Couturier when both played for the Drummondville Voltigeurs in the QMJHL. That theory's been blown up since both made the NHL. Palat has six fewer points in the NHL (63) than Couturier (69) even though Couturier (205) has played 110 more NHL games than Palat (95). Couturier has experienced fairly drastic defensive usage in the NHL, but that's still a stark contrast in offensive production for junior linemates drafted six rounds and 200 picks apart.

The truth is, Palat been a very good scorer throughout his career. But even a keen eye on him in the QMJHL and the AHL with the Norfolk Admirals and Syracuse Crunch and the most optimistic of projections would not have accounted for how well he adjusted to the NHL. He's strong on the puck, good in the corners, quick and decisive in the neutral zone, and a better skater than most realize. His shot isn't world-beating, but he's got enough skill in tight to make good scoring chances count:

That's an NHL Gamecenter Live commercial waiting to happen; this is the type of high-skill play the Pens usually drop on the Lightning, not the other way around.

At the time, there was even some noise being made about Pittsburgh Penguins' rookie defender Olli Maatta with regards to the Calder Trophy, so this isn't just a case of Palat embarrassing someone who doesn't belong in the NHL in the first place. He was legitimate scoring threat nearly every night, and his ability to slide up or down the lineup as needed will be indispensable for Jon Cooper and the Lightning in 2014-15.

If there's cause for concern with Palat this year, it's just managing expectations for a sophomore season when everything seemed to go his way as a rookie. His play was outstanding, no doubt, but he also got more than his fair share of bounces. The point total might come down a little bit as his percentages come down; but then again, if he sticks on a top line with Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan, he might be a 60-point player again, which is top-line production. Just remember that it is actually possible for Palat to improve his play but score fewer points, because that's just hockey.

Also, consider this: just 49 players in the NHL cracked 60 points last year; if you imagine the top 90 forwards in the league are "top-line players" (30 teams, three forwards on a line) then Palat 100% fits the bill. His rate scoring tells the same story -- he scored 2.13 points/60 minutes at 5v5, good for 42nd in the NHL and ahead of well-known forwards like Logan Couture, Marian Hossa, and Claude Giroux. (Oh, and that guy MacKinnon, who beat him for the Calder.)

The great rookie year earned Palat a three-year extension to match Tyler Johnson's, and so far as an NHLer Palat has given every indication of offering tremendous value on that deal which runs through 2017.