Top 25 Under 25: #9 Ondrej Palat

Now looking like a permanent, full-time member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, former 7th round pick Ondrej Palat comes in at number 9 on our list.

Ondrej Palat was drafted in he 7th round in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Let that sink in for a moment -- a player drafted in the final round of the draft went on to, just two years later, lead the AHL in playoff scoring and then a few short months later make his NHL club out of training camp.

This was Steve Yzerman's first draft as a General Manager in the National Hockey League. Palat was chosen 208th overall. That means only 3 other players were selected after him. The pick was acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for the rights to Marc-Antoine Pouliot, who hasn't played in the NHL since the 2011-2012 season and is currently playing in the top Swiss professional league.

Here is how the panel ranked Palat:

Kyle Alexander John Fontana Clark Brooks Clare Austin Patti McDonald Mike Gallimore
9 7 6 9 8 14

Palat has rocketed up the organizational depth chart, surpassing the franchise's other 7th round draft pick from that season, Matthew Peca, who still looks like a great prospect but will take more time to develop in the NCAA. Palat is the early prototype of the Yzerman late-round draft pick -- either an underrated, undersized high-scorer who many feel won't be able to handle the physicality of the NHL, or an overage and overlooked European.

Palat represents an organizational philosophy that Yzerman has had success with. While so many 18-year old hockey players are drafted each year at the Entry Draft, many of them are impossible to accurately project. Scouts try to highlight key aspects that they think will translate well in the 3-5 years it will take most 18-year olds to reach the NHL and ignore those flaws that they feel they can work out of their game during that time. But for the most part, with 18-year olds, you're drafting lottery tickets and hoping you end up with more winners than busts.

So a 7th round pick -- the quintessential "throw-in" commodity for any NHL trade, is undervalued by most NHL general managers. Just take a quick peak at some of the names in the 7th round that went ahead of Palat and stop me when you've heard of someone: Garret Haar, Derek Mathers, Alexei Marchenko, Ryan Dzingel, Max Everson...

By the time you're picking in the 150-200 range, most of the best North American players, who are most scouted by NHL franchises, have already been taken. Now you're left with 3rd line grinders and PK/defensive specialists, players that don't commonly make a significant NHL impact. But you could be like Yzerman, and decide a flier on a slightly overage (say, 20-22 year old) European scorer is a better investment. Just take a look at who Yzerman took in the late rounds in 2013 for more evidence of this theory in action: Henri Ikonen (6th round, 154th overall), a 19-year old Finnish forward with 24 points in 15 games so far with the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL; Saku Salminen (7th round, 184th overall) another Finnish 19 year old apparently riding the pine in the top Finnish professional league; and Joel Vermin (7th round, 186th overall), a 21 year old Swiss forward who is admittedly struggling this year but had 35 points in 47 games in the top Swiss league a year ago.

Palat was 20 years old when he was drafted, so while he may have been a "late-bloomer" in terms of scoring (putting up 96 points in 61 games in his final season of North American junior hockey, playing against much younger players) that made him a much more developed and complete player when he was drafted.

Rather than having to wait 2-4 years for Palat to round out his defensive game and polish his offensive skills in junior or the NCAA, Palat entered the professional game with the AHL Norfolk Admirals right away in his draft year. As a 20 year old, the Lightning didn't have to worry about the asinine AHL/junior hockey transfer agreement that put Brett Connolly in an odd spot coming out of his draft year and may have slowed down his development. Instead, Palat stepped right into a big role for the Admirals in their Calder Cup-winning season and followed it up by forming the top trio for the Crunch the year after as they returned to the Calder Cup Finals. He also beat out more traditionally "offensive players" like linemates Richard Panik and Tyler Johnson or opposing forwards like Tomas Tatar by leading the AHL in playoff scoring with 26 points in 18 games.

In 14 games this year with the Lightning, Palat has already made an impression with Lightning fans due to his surprising poise on the ice. He's not often caught out of position, has good defensive instincts and a willingness to backcheck and defend in his own zone, and has underrated ability with the puck on his stick, making slick entries through the neutral zone or keeping a possession alive along the boards in the offensive zone. He's also been a top penalty kill forward for the Bolts under head coach Jon Cooper, most often paired with Tyler Johnson. He's logging 2:10 per game on the kill. Only Nate Thompson, BJ Crombeen, and Johnson are seeing more time a man short for the Bolts than Palat.

He's also been a favorite player of the staff at Bolt Prospects, who recently put him at 7th on their preliminary 2013-2014 prospect rankings, which have a slightly different criteria than our Top 25 Under 25 series. From that piece:

Smooth. That's the adjective that best describes the game of winger Ondrej Palat. After a disjointed first few games this season, Palat has settled into his new role in the NHL providing poised, intelligent play in all three zones that could only be described as... smooth. In the defensive zone, Palat's already become a forward Head Coach Jon Cooper appears comfortable in using in close games thanks to Palat's excellent, responsible positioning. In the other two zones, Palat looks calm under fire with the puck, possessing puck-handling skills that allow him to make the right play nine times out of 10 without appearing to break a sweat.

The advanced statistics also demonstrate how well Palat has been adjusting to the NHL game. The Lightning are controlling 50.6% of all shot attempts (Corsi) with Palat on the ice and 49.6% of all unblocked attempts (Fenwick). His PDO (on-ice shooting + save percentages) sits a comfortable 99.3, so he's not been overly lucky or unlucky while on the ice so far this season in 14 games played. He's been sheltered just a bit by Cooper in his first NHL season -- 3rd on the Lightning in terms of offensive zone starts and facing relatively easy competition with fairly average linemates -- but he's performing well beyond the expectations for most rookie forwards and will likely only progress as he adjusts to the NHL pace.

With only 5 points in 14 games so far, it remains to be seen whether Palat has the offensive acumen to keep a top-9 forward spot long-term, but as a utility forward or bottom-6 guy, he's already contributing and looks to have the highest floor (if the lowest ceiling) of any of the prospects who made the Lightning this year out of training camp.