Equality in hockey is indiscriminately playing one’s depth players regardless of how key the moment and not abridging the lineup or reshuffling minutes simply based on skill levels. The ramifications of this are especially salient when the stakes are heightened. When the Lightning faltered against Columbus, Cooper was hesitant to stop rolling four lines. I think one of the fundamental reasons Cooper has experienced so much success as a head coach is the trust he bestows on his players, from the stars to the ancillary skaters, to add value if put into the right role.
This brings us to Ondrej Palat and his role on the Lightning. In short, his output is not commensurate to the top-six role he seems to have cemented by his reputation and the Lightning’s lack of other talent at left wing. Palat had 19 goals in 120 games over the past two seasons, so we know he struggles to score. He isn’t a singular playmaker; in 2018-19, half of his assists were second assists. In 2017-18, 10 of his 24 assists were second assists. It is fair to wonder how much Palat benefits from being afforded top-six teammates and cushy usage; no player on the Lightning had a more favorable zone-start ratio than Palat last season. And then you remember that he also doesn’t exactly drive possession at 5v5. In 2017-18, Palat was seventh in Corsi Plus-Minus among Bolts forwards; in 2018-19, he was 9th. So, it is fair to muse how much value Palat adds in his own right.
If Anthony Cirelli were going to be plopped in the top six, that is one spot taken at left wing. (Cirelli is a heck of a center, but he isn’t replacing Steven Stamkos or Brayden Point as the putative No. 1 and No. 2 centers.) And surely Yanni Gourde, who registered 47 goals in his last two seasons and also finished fourth among Lightning forwards in points in both years, deserves time as the other left wing too. Gourde adds a presence around the net that the Lightning lack when the ring the puck around the perimeter. All of this is to say: I think this season presents a unique opportunity for Cooper to recast Palat’s role.
If Palat moved to the third line with Alex Killorn and Mathieu Joseph, it could give the Lightning dynamism among their bottom-six forwards. The Blues and Bruins both underscored the importance of having forwards who can impact and alter a game. If Cooper is inclined to give equal treatment to his forwards come postseason, the third and fourth lines need to be influential. But the responsibility of a third-line forward is different than one in the top-six. In his new role, Palat could be used to shut down opponents’ top first lines, relieving the Brayden Point line of that assignment. Instead of there being a looming expectation for Palat to contribute offensively, his duty now would be to hem the puck in the opponent’s zone and maintain a vigorous defensive presence. Instead of receding high at the wing to position himself to jumpstart the transition for Stamkos, Palat could sink low and help the defensemen, keeping the bottom half of the defensive zone clean.
This would also afford the chance to use Palat as a penalty killer again. In 2014-15, Palat finished third among Lightning forwards in time on ice shorthanded. In 2018-19, he was on the ice for less than ten minutes when the Lightning were on the penalty kill. If Cirelli is poised to have a breakout season, it could be worth exploring removing him from the penalty kill and dropping him in as the net-front presence on the first power play (in Palat’s spot) and saving Cirelli taxing defensive minutes. In 17-18, Point was significantly worse on the penalty kill than Cirelli was in 18-19, and once the Lightning identified Point’s offensive potential, he stopped seeing those onerous shorthanded minutes. Also, if the Lightning switch Cirelli for Palat on the penalty kill, they would still have centers Killorn and Gourde to take faceoffs. With Palat as a penalty killer in lieu of Cirelli, the penalty kill would be worse, but the Lightning should want to save their best players for 5v5 and the man advantage, and perhaps a less effective penalty kill would incentivize Tampa Bay to avoid finishing first in minor penalties committed.
A crucial aspect for any hockey coach is his ability to structure time for his players. Cooper does not strike me as a micro manager. Instead of obsessively trying to pull every lever, he wants his players to be free to use their instincts and natural ability to positively affect the game. But this requires reassessing where his charges are in their career trajectories. Palat appears to be at a different juncture than he was in his early 20s. He fails to carry the same sizzle offensively. Reviewing his stats in 2014-15, it wasn’t just his impressive scoring. Only Kucherov had a better Corsi Plus-Minus among forwards. Palat was a catalyst.
In 19-20, placing Palat with the third line players might also help him improve in areas where his game has been lacking. Instead of focusing on engineering offense on the rush for Stamkos, Palat will be expected to carefully dump the puck in and establish the forecheck. Cleaved from Stamkos and Kucherov, any offense Palat provides will be a bonus. The most important part of this exercise is that it will supply a litmus test. If Palat can’t succeed as a scoring forward, and he sputters as a shutdown energy player, then the Lightning need to start exploring trade options.