TORONTO -- As the NHL draft neared its end in June 2011, Ondrej Palat was at home in his native Czech Republic, monitoring the first six-plus rounds without his name being called.
"I was watching the draft online," Palat recalled Wednesday morning. "My agent had told me there was a small chance I'd be drafted. When I saw the 200th pick, I just shut off my laptop."
Thing is, had he hung in there three more minutes, he would have seen that pick No. 208 overall -- three picks from the end of the draft -- had his name on it.
"Five minutes after I turned off my computer, my agent called," Palat said, smiling. "He told me I was drafted by Tampa Bay. My parents were crying. It was awesome."
Three years later, that late seventh-round pick, almost as late as it could be, is second in the NHL's rookie points race with 46 points (18-28), not to mention a league-leading plus-28 among first-year players before the Tampa Bay Lightning took the ice Wednesday night versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. In a salary-cap world, turning your seventh-round picks into actual NHL contributors is, well, the difference between the good teams and the bad ones.
"He's slowly gotten better, he's slowly gotten stronger," an NHL team executive from a rival Eastern Conference team told ESPN.com. "You watch him play, he's not afraid to go into tough areas. His strength is getting better and better, and he's become a legitimate top-six forward. That was a great pick for them. Those guys that you get that late that turn into players, that's found money." Added a front-office source from another Eastern team: "He is a smart, two-way player. Has some [Valtteri] Filppula in him."
Palat is on a line with Filppula and Ryan Callahan these days, the rookie putting up nine points (4-5) in his last five games. It's pretty much a forgone conclusion that 18-year-old Nate MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche will win the Calder Trophy because he's not only leading all rookies in scoring, but doing so in electric fashion on a nightly basis. Still, it tells you about the health of this Tampa franchise that the next two rookies in the scoring race are both Lightning forwards, Palat second followed by teammate Tyler Johnson, the undrafted forward I wrote about in late January.
Well, Palat was unclaimed in his first two years of NHL draft eligibility in 2009 in 2010 and nearly skated through in 2011, as mentioned. All of which, like his teammate Johnson, simply made him hungrier to prove everyone wrong.
"I was never a big star, I just worked hard all my career," shrugged Palat, who turns 23 on March 28.
Palat is yet another gem found during the watch of Al Murray, Tampa's chief amateur scout. When reached Wednesday morning, Murray was quick to credit Michel Boucher, Tampa's Quebec amateur scout, as well as former former Drummondville (QMJHL) head coach Mario Duhamel (who's now part of Avalanche coaching staff).
"Mario Duhamel was pushing Ondrej quite a bit on teams," said Murray, who also credited Tampa's emphasis on player development and the way in which the Lightning handle young players.
The original thought from the Lightning was to invite Palat to a try out if he went undrafted in 2011.
"But then our assistant GM, Julien Brisebois, told us at the draft table that he could get an extra seventh-round pick if we wanted one," Murray said.
The Bolts had eyes on both Palat and Matthew Peca; they took Peca 201st overall and then Palat with the fourth-from-last overall pick.
"By getting that extra pick, we decided to draft Ondrej so we didn't have to battle other NHL teams whom we thought would also try to invite him to camp," Murray said.
Um, good call. Drafted as a 20-year-old by Tampa after a 96-point (39-57) campaign in 62 games with Drummondville, two years later, Palat was putting up nearly a point a game last season in the AHL with 52 points (13-39) in 56 games. Why such an overlooked prospect? In part because Palat doesn't blow you away with speed or skill, he's just a smart player with an incredible competitive streak.
Tampa Bay Lightning
"It's also because he was overshadowed in junior by Sean Couturier," said Murray, referring to the young Philadelphia Flyers stud center. "The two of them meshed together so well in Drummondville, but Sean was the apple of everyone's eye, big, 6-3 center with skill who could play any role. Then there was this six-foot Czech guy nobody really knew much about. He was never a dominant star for the Czech national team program. A lot of people just attributed his points in Drummondville to playing with Sean Couturier. But other teams, including us, thought he was a pretty strong player in his own right."
Once Tampa had its mitts on Palat, the Bolts never looked back. He made AHL Norfolk that following fall. The head coach in Norfolk that season? Jon Cooper, now head coach with the Lightning.
"Did you ever hear the term, 'You never know what you have until you coach him?' That's kind of like what he is," Cooper said Wednesday after being asked about Palat. "We really appreciated him from the day we got him. He was a healthy scratch at first in the American League; we thought we might send him back to junior, and we kept him, and he kept just finding a way. Once we got to his second [AHL] year, we knew we had a special player."
Cooper has had a front-row seat to Palat's development the last three years.
"He's just always on the right side of the puck," Cooper said. "He does everything the way it's supposed to be done. He doesn't cheat the game. Now it's starting to pay off for him. ...
"Palat is one of those guys that doesn't care who he plays with, but everyone else wants Palat on their line."
Having his AHL coach now with him at the NHL level has been a clear bonus for Palat.
"Sure, it's awesome," the left winger said. "He's my first pro coach in North America. He's been awesome to me. I know what to expect from him and he knows what to expect from me. It works real well."
Still, second in NHL rookie scoring and playing top-six forward minutes? Not even Palat thought that was in the cards this season.
"I didn't know if I would make the team this year," he said. "Then when I made it, I thought I'd be a fourth-line guy. So I'm real happy with the season and how it's gone."