New Jersey Devils General Manager spent most of Free Agency Frenzy yesterday trying to get Johnny Gaudreau to come to the Devils. He did not get him as Johnny Hockey went to Columbus. The Devils needed to move on to Plan B for a winger to strengthen the lineup. Plan B turned out to be former Tampa Bay Lightning winger Ondrej Palat. The news came out after midnight that the Devils signed Palat to a five-season contract worth $30 million. Palat was one of the notable wingers available after yesterday’s free agent signings and the Devils got him.
Is it a good signing? I am not certain.
To be fair, it was likely that whoever was going to sign Palat was going to have to offer a contract like this. Back in 2017, Steve Yzerman signed him to a five-season contract worth $26.5 million for a cap hit of $5.3 million. Palat may be 31 but between his reputation and his playoff performances in each of the last three seasons, there was little chance Palat or his agent would accept any kind of decrease in salary. Combined with the fact Tom Fitzgerald targeted him after he missed on Gaudreau, Palat was in a great position to command a more lucrative deal. Which he did get.
Further, Palat is a complementary winger that has something for a lot of fans to appreciate. If you value experience, then Palat has that. If you value a winger who can forecheck hard,, then Palat can do that. If you value that Palat can support more talented players, then he has that. If you value that whenever Palat has been on the ice in 5-on-5 his team is playing at least fairly well overall, then he has that (seriously, he has never had a CF% or xGF% below 50% since his first full season per Natural Stat Trick). If you value players who can put up some offense and help out in transition while filling in spots in a top-six role, then Palat does that. If you value playoff production and rings, then he has that. To use a meme phrase that I am sure is played out now, Palat absolutely has that dawg in him. More seriously, he is a player that I think people how he plays on the ice – myself included. I like Palat. I repeat: I like Palat. And you may like all of this too.
However, the more one looks into Palat and this deal, the less enthused one may get.
As a general point, Palat is 31 with a lot of mileage on that body. He has played in 628 season games and 138 playoff games. He has also missed significant chunks of the season more often than not. He has appeared in 75 or more games just three times in his career: his first full season in 2013-14 (81 games), his second full season in 2014-15 (75 games), and last season (77 games). While he did appear in a nice 69 games in 2019-20, this means Palat has missed at least 13 games in most seasons in his career so far. (Note: He did play 55 in 56 games in the 2020-21 season, he played in 55 out of 56 games. No matter who it is, you cannot contribute if you are not able to actually play. While Palat was able to only miss a handful of games over the last two seasons, his durability will be more, not less, of a concern as he gets older.
As a stickier point, Palat has had a career of putting up good to very good 5-on-5 on-ice rates in his career. He has also spent plenty of time with some very good players on Tampa Bay. Last season, per Natural Stat Trick, his most common teammates in 5-on-5 hockey included Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Steven Stamkos, and Nikita Kucherov. His most common teammates at forward over the last three seasons were Point (1,630 minutes!), Kucherov, Anthony Cirelli, and Stamkos. Yet, one has to wonder, where is the production? In 5-on-5 play, Palat put up 28, 23, and 33 points in each of the last three seasons. For perspective’s sake, six Devils put up 32 or more points at 5-on-5 alone last season. That is not encouraging for someone who just got a $30 million contract.
Palat has never been that significant producer in the regular season. His best season in terms of total points was his 2014-15 season when he put up 63 points. Palat has only scored more than 20 goals once in his career and that was in his first full season in the NHL back in 2013-14. Palat last broke the 50 point plateau in 2016-17, which was the third time he has ever done it. He came very close to doing so last season at 49 points and he was on pace to do so in 2020-21. Despite all of the minutes with Point, Hedman, Sergachev, Stamkos, and Kucherov, Palat just does not have a lot of points. Sure, Palat has plenty of production in the playoffs. 48 goals and 94 points in 138 games, and 11 goals and 21 points in 23 games in 2022 is really good. Yet, I do not think that is particularly relevant to a Devils team that has missed the playoffs by quite a bit for much of the last decade. Points are not everything but they are not nothing either. Especially for a player just handed a $30 million contract by a team that really needed another scoring winger.
If I want to be really harsh, then I can point out that this is not too dissimilar than Tatar. Yes, Tatar does not have the playoff pedigree, the playoff results, the intangibles, and that dawg in him. But he is also another forward with good to very good 5-on-5 underlying stats without the production you may expect from it. Palat has 143 goals and 423 points in 628 games. Tatar has 191 goals and 407 points in 701 games. Palat is a complementary winger. As is Tatar. The comparison is not that completely far off. If you did not like Tatar and his bouts of inconsistent production, then you may not like it if and when Palat goes on a cold goalless streak. Which did happen last season for Palat; he went over 20 games without a score between January 11, 2022 and April 10, 2022. You may also not like it more knowing that Palat costs $1.5 million more than Tatar to the salary cap and is committed for much longer than Tatar, whose contract expires after 2022-23.
There is some credit to be handed out here. Credit to Fitzgerald for going after Palat and getting his signature after failing to land Gaudreau. I do not know how much demand there was for Palat, but he at least won this one after losing to Jarmo Kekalainen and the Columbus organization. He could have waited until later today to start negotiations for whoever was left. It would have risked missing out on more wingers. Instead, he made it a priority to get a winger and he got one. He got a winger in Palat that has a positive reputation and a skillset that complements the Devils as well as a history of playing well off of more talented offensive players. Further, there is a possibility that Palat stays healthy and meshes so well with either Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes that he can be more productive than he has been in recent seasons with Tampa Bay. It is a small possibility. It is unlikely for a player beyond 30 years old to see a jump in production. But the possibility does exist. (Per Shayna Goldman’s tweet, it’s a remote possibility and more likely Palat declines harder than we may want.) And depending on the structure of the contract – details have not been determined as of this writing – the Devils may be able to move on from this deal if (or when) it goes bad. Which in of itself is not something to really praise, but that is the reality of the current NHL and how most teams operate with the hard salary cap.
There have been two vocal groups among the People Who Matter in this offseason with respect to getting wingers. One wanted the Devils to go big and bring in an elite scorer. There was really one player to really fit that bill that was available, and they wanted Johnny Gaudreau. They did not get him. The other wanted the Devils to go out and get a stronger, more powerful, beefier winger to supplement a small top-six. Regardless of his reputation and how he plays, I do not think the 6’0” and 194 pound Palat fits that bill either. So this signing satisfies neither group. Who does this satisfy? I suppose those who wanted Fitzgerald to do something. If you wanted Fitzgerald to do something, then this signing is something.
As much as I like how he plays, how he can fit in the top-six, and I think he contribute a plenty of little things, I do not know if there is enough substance to justify a contract this large. Had this deal been for two fewer seasons, then I would be a lot more pleased with it. I do not know if I’m going to like how Palat is at age 34 between his durability, his consistent mid-level production, and that his biggest selling point – playoffs! – may still not even happen with the Devils. Again, I like him. As much as he was one of the better options still available (cheaper than Nazem Kadri, I wonder if this risk would have been better taken for a younger Dylan Strome?), I do not know if I like Palat enough for a five-season commitment at $6 million per season. Certainly not after a day where I saw a younger, more productive, and also recent-champion Andre Burakovsky take a little less than that ($5.5 million per season) to play for Seattle of all teams. And as much as I would not have chased Gaudreau for a $63-70 million deal, I would almost rather make that big bet instead of this one. Gaudreau probably would have contributed more than Palat by the time both turn 36 when these contracts end. But we have to live with the reality we have and not the one we wish we were in.
Ultimately, the question has to be asked: Does Palat make the Devils a better team for 2022-23, at least on paper? I think so. Enough to warrant a five-season, $30 million contract? I am not so sure. The money is whatever, it is the term (mostly) and the fact that the Devils went after him after missing out on so many opportunities (partially) that rub me the wrong way. Had this been a two or three-season deal, then I would be a lot more jazzed about this. Do I hope he performs better than I think? Absolutely. Are Plan B’s as good as Plan A’s? Usually not. Is this Plan B good enough? Time will tell.
As a final point, I think Jesper Bratt and his people love this signing. If only as it should ensure a more lucrative deal. I mean, he is still the best winger on the team.
That is my take on the Palat signing. What’s yours? Do you like it? Do you like it but may be not for this much term, money, or both? Do you not like it? What do you expect from Palat? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.