NHL Free Company: Ondrej Palat might provide some playoff magic for the Penguins

The Penguins have $15 million in cap space, and they reportedly would like to clear even more (though general manager Ron Hextall admitted the obvious – that will be easier said than done). Which everyone assumes would mean moving Marcus Pettersson if possible.

Pittsburgh needs to sign Evgeni Malkin, and probably do so will soon. But they still need more forwards to round out the team. They will have some money and space, though how much is still to be seen.

Rickard Rakell fit in and impressed in his short stint in Pittsburgh. But there’s another winger that is going to the market that can’t be ignored as a possibility. That comes in the form of one of the most clutch and productive players from the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ondrej Palat.

Palat has been a very Chris Kunitz-esque player as a super sturdy supporting option in the Tampa dynasty (are we calling it a dynasty? Palat has played 135 playoff games in the last seven years, that feels dynastic in this day and age).

Palat has shown up in the big moments. This post-season he has scored 21 playoff points (11G+10A) in 23 games. He elevates his game at the right time. And to be fair, he’s not an “every night” guy, Palat scored 49 points in 77 regular season games this season — and that’s his high-water mark in points since 2016-17. You do not pay Palat for October-March, you pay him for when the stakes are the highest, and his sample of him is more than convincing that he will come through when a team is counting on him.

What Palat lacks in exceptional counting stats, especially as not a regular first team power play guy, he makes up for with value in the playoffs. Palat has scored 23 goals and 52 points in the last three playoffs (over 72 games). That’s the seventh highest scorer in that time in the league and the most of any Tampa forward not named Kucherov or Point.

If you believe in the “clutch gene”, you believe in Ondrej Palat. Even though the Penguins’ post-season problems in recent years have about three fingers pointed at the various goaltending issues for and against them, the opportunity to potentially add such a key scorer in big moments has to be intriguing and draw attention.

On the flip side, Palat is 31 years old, and on the open market he will be getting a big salary for a long term that will be post-prime any way you slice it. The Pens just re-signed 30 year old Bryan Rust for a long time. A free agent Palat commitment would surely be similar. Palat’s previous salary cap hit was $5.3 million, and due to his playoff performance, he might get even bigger offers — even though impending free agent wingers like Johnny Gaudeau, Filip Forsberg, Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin all are younger and had better regular season stats .

Still, Pittsburgh could use a top-six forward. They might need a little more cap space, but the all-around game of Palat would fit like a glove with the Pens. Hell, it would fit in anywhere as the top of “shotgun rider” on a top line as supporting player who can carry his weight and be productive at even strength.

Look at that WAR percentile rank in the upper right-hand corner. Just as steady as the day is long.

The Penguins have a lot of options of how they could potentially fit the pieces of the puzzle together. In the past few months they’ve signed plenty of 30+ year old players for a while (Rust, Letang, Jeff Carter), which shouldn’t make the concept of adding a player like Palat that out of character for a late-stage team looking to maximize their chances right now.

If they want to try to add that extra playoff magic, somehow finding enough room to add Ondrej Palat to the top-six mix would be a gigantic step forward with an eye towards reversing recent playoff failures.

When a team has a cap room, they are only limited by their imagination. Signing an older player to a market value deal might not be a sound decision for the long term, but at this point of the Pens’ franchise life-cycle, they ought not close the door on what a proven playoff performer can provide for them when the games are at their biggest.

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