TAMPA – How did Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov come to be known as ‘The Triplets’?
“I saw someone tweeted it, and then it was in the news,” Palat said. “I don’t really mind it. I don’t care.”
Truth be told, it may have been their coach, Jon Cooper, that thrust the moniker into the lexicon. He put the line together on Oct. 24, 2014, the hasty result of an unforeseen injury to a teammate. Over the next several months, the trio became the team’s offensive engine, both in the regular season and in the playoffs, scoring exactly half of the team’s postseason goals through Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final (30 of 60).
"They sort of have that perfect mix of speed and skill," Cooper said back in Nov. 2014, just over a week after the line’s formation. "And it's weird because they all seem to be on the same wavelength; it's like they're triplets.”
It is weird. Johnson, 24, is an undrafted center from Spokane who is listed at 5-foot-8 and drives to the net with speed. Palat, 24, was a seventh-round pick by the Lightning in 2011 from Frydek-Mistek, Czech Republic, playing a complete game that has earned comparisons to some of the best two-way wingers in the game. Kucherov, 21, was a second rounder in at same draft, from Moscow – a skilled sniper.
That’s a lot of geography on one line. A lot of different styles. A lot of disparate personalities. And not a lot of experience.
“I think it’s a good thing to be young. You’re excited. You’re ready for anything,” said Johnson.
And they are. They’ve battled through the league’s best defensemen and goaltenders. They’ve played their game without Cooper giving thought to splitting them up – a rarity in today’s NHL. Steven Stamkos called them the best three-man unit he’s ever seen. When The Triplets are dominating, it’s difficult to find fault with the assessment.
So how did Johnson, Palat and Kucherov end up forming the NHL’s most dynamic line this season?
The birth of The Triplets begins in the American Hockey League, thanks to the only head coach they’ve had as pro players.
By now, Tyler Johnson’s path to the NHL is the stuff of fables.
An undersized center, he was cut by his USHL team when he was 17. “I was a little disappointed. In my head, I always thought I was going to play in college. But plans change,” he said.
The new plan? Work his behind off for the WHL Spokane Chiefs, who reached out to him in 2007. He played four seasons in Spokane, including appearances on the IIHF world junior U-18 team for the U.S. and the 2010 world junior championship team, on which Tyler had three goals and two assists in seven games. He was making a name for himself, even though he was never drafted by an NHL team.
In 2011, after attending Minnesota Wild rookie camp in the previous season, Johnson signed a 3-year entry-level deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning and reported to AHL Norfolk.
“I don’t ever look at myself as never been drafted. I don’t look at myself any differently,” said Johnson. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a first rounder, third rounder or undrafted. Everyone is going to have the same opportunity. You just have to earn it.”
Cooper was in his second season as Admirals coach, and his second season as a pro coach as well.
“I remember the first year in the American League, we had kind of a veteran-laden team. Guys were all over the place,” recalled Cooper. “Me personally, I was trying to find out about pro hockey. I was coming from junior where we practiced in the afternoon. The funniest things you learn when you’re going to pro.”
Johnson’s first AHL season in 2011-12 was a blockbuster success: 31 goals, 37 assists and 14 points in 14 playoff games for the Calder Cup champion Admirals.
It was also Palat’s first year as a pro, scoring 30 points in 61 games.
“In our second year, we got the influx of young guys. My thought was, Palat was in his over-age year [for junior hockey]. The decision was, ‘Are we going to send him back to junior, East Coast league, or keep him with us?’” said Cooper. “Much to our philosophy, ‘Let’s just keep the young guys and see what we can do with them, see if we can develop them.’ They ultimately were pretty quick-skilled players.”
So Cooper kept Palat with the Admirals, and paired him with Johnson. The harmony was instant.
“We found our chemistry right away. Me, Johnson and Richard Panik,” recalled Palat.
Palat and Johnson first played with Panik, a skilled Slovakian with a heavy shot whom the Lightning had drafted No. 52 overall in 2009. He had 19 goals and 22 assists in the Admirals’ 2011-12 Cup run. The line was first put together in Jan. 2012. Soon after, the Lightning would win a record 28-straight games.
“We kind of put those three guys together, we’ll leave our vets together. Ultimately some of the vets, they wanted to have vets on their line instead of these young guys, and we just put the young guys together and committed to playing them,” said Cooper.
“As it turned out, they went from rookies to stars on our team in a short time. But it was all a learning process.”
Johnson, Palat and Panik weren’t always together. Cooper would pull them apart, trying to spread the offensive around. But he always came back to the fact that they played exponentially better together.
Johnson was even starting to break through the language barrier. “I at least know when they’re mad at me,” Johnson said in Oct. 2013. “So that’s always good.”
Their group had a nickname too: The Top Gun Line.
The franchise “moved” to become the Syracuse Crunch, but the line continued to dominate. Johnson won AHL MVP honors with 37 goals, the second straight Lightning minor league player to win the award after Cory Conacher in 2011-12.
“For me, I had a ton of confidence in these young guys,” said Cooper. “Maybe it was because I was a rookie myself as a pro. I had this group of guys that were all rookies themselves. We just made this commitment to come up together.”
On March 25, 2013, Cooper was named the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, replacing Guy Boucher. Cooper had been headhunted by other teams – the Washington Capitals were reportedly very keen on him before hiring Adam Oates – but remained with the Lightning and ultimately got the big job.
"He has had success at every level he has coached and is extremely familiar with our organization, as well as our players,” said Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.
Panik had been called up to the Lightning that season and played 25 games. Johnson and Palat both played 14.
They were part of a wave of AHL players that ascended to the Lightning, unofficially dubbed “Coop’s Troops”: Loyal to a fault to their coach, and the feeling was reciprocated.
“We had a lot of guys come up from the AHL, and that made the transition a little bit,” said Johnson.
“We played with a lot of those guys together in the AHL. When Coop became coach, we were lucky enough to have them here,” said Palat. “He’s been great with us. Always wants to win. Just a great coach, overall.”
Cooper said he owes much of his success to those “troops” that were brought up, en masse, to the big club. And that coming up together made them more confidence players.
“For them, they weren’t being brought up one at a time, playing eight minutes a night, having one bad shift, then maybe not having the trust of the coach,” he said.
“They got to all come up. We’d been together, so they knew my expectations and standards in the organization. They got to fail before they could succeed. I was okay with it because I know they passed that test in the American League, and I had full confidence they could do it in the National League.”
At the start of the 2013-14 season, The Top Gun Line was assembled in Lightning training camp.
"There is one thing to be said about chemistry, and those guys have it," said Cooper at the time.
The 2013-14 season was one of the most unpredictable and contentious in team history.
On Nov. 11, all the positive vibes were drained from the locker room when star Steven Stamkos broke his right tibia, slamming against the goal post in a game against the Boston Bruins.
It was a moment that called for a desperation scrambling of the team’s lineup to compensate. As a result, Cooper broke up the Top Guns and put veteran winger Marty St. Louis, who played with Stamkos, with Johnson and Palat, both in their true rookie seasons.
“After Stammer got hurt, we played with Marty. We learned a lot from him about how to play in this league. Gained confidence,” said Palat.
St. Louis helped push Palat and Johnson’s offensive numbers into the stratosphere: Palat had 23 goals and 36 assists, while Johnson had 24 goals and 26 assists on the season. Their production continued after St. Louis’ trade demand to the New York Rangers was granted by the Lightning.
While helping to carry a Stamkos-less team to a postseason berth, Palat and Johnson were split up for the first times since their Norfolk days down the stretch.
“I don’t know if people are going to put those guys up in the conversation for the rookie of the year award, but I’ll be really hard-pressed not to see those two names up there for what they’ve done for us in a situation where we were missing players and we needed guys to step up. Those guys stepped up,” said Cooper at the time.
Both were finalists for the Calder Trophy, although it was handed to Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche.
With St. Louis gone, there was some thought that the Top Gun Line could be reunited for the Lightning in 2014-15.
One problem: Richard Panik was placed on waivers by the Lightning, in a rather stunning move. He was claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It was a numbers game for the Bolts, both from a contract perspective and a roster one. Combine that with the fact that Panik wasn’t able to find a scintilla of the success his former linemates had in their rookie seasons, and he was put on waivers.
Instead, it was Brett Connolly, a No. 6 overall pick in 2010 who was shipped to the AHL in the previous training camp, that would get his shot with Palat and Johnson.
A shot that would last until Oct. 24, when Connolly injured his leg and didn’t return until a month later.
Once again, Cooper was faced with a decision on whom to slot with Palat and Johnson. He decided on Kucherov, who appeared in 52 games in the previous season.
“He put us together because Connolly got hurt. Unfortunately, for him,” said Kucherov. “For some reason, we had that chemistry together. We think the same way. We make each other better players.”
In his first season with the Lightning, Kucherov had 9 goals and 9 assists in 52 games.
He was able to surpass those totals in just 23 games with Johnson and Palat.
“He fits real well. He’s just fun to play with. Such great skills,” said Palat. “I know I just need to find him with the puck and he’s going to do something special with it. Really fun to watch.”
The trio would go on to produce astronomical numbers: Johnson with 29 goals and 43 assists; Kucherov with 28 goals and 36 assists; and Palat with 16 goals and 47 assists.
The Triplets were the NHL’s best line, with remarkable results and undeniable chemistry, on and off the ice.
THREE MEN AND A CUP
Are The Triplets as tight off the ice as they are on it?
“We’re definitely friends off the ice,” said Johnson. “We have our own lives away from the rink, but we’re together on the road. Pally and I have been in the same spot for three years, so we’re close to each other. I wouldn’t say we’re inseparable or anything like that, but we’re friends. That goes a long way.”
Palat said he and Johnson have been close for years but that they’re not attached at the hip.
“It’s not like we gotta be all together, all the time. We’ve got our lives, girlfriends, stuff like that. I might go out with a dinner with Johnny,” he said.
“But Kuchy, he likes the room service. A little bit lazier than us.”
Now, all three are trying to carry the Lightning to their first Stanley Cup since 2004. Johnson leads the playoffs with 13 goals and 22 assists. Kucherov is right behind him with 10 goals and 21 assists. Palat has seven goals and 8 assists, but leads his linemates in ice time (19:04).
For Johnson, the Cup has been a dream since he embarked on his untraditional journey to the NHL, from an undrafted player to someone leading the Conn Smythe conversation.
For Palat, it’s been a dream ever since he saw his idol, Jaromir Jagr, hoisting the Cup over his head.
“He was the poster above my bed,” he said.
Kucherov had a poster too growing up, in his house in Moscow. For him, the Cup is a dream he’s thought about since he was a child.
“When I was young, my father had poster on the wall of the Russian Five in Detroit. I would touch it, feel it. I would think about it all the time,” he said.
For a line that’s been years in the making despite their youth, the dream is in reach.
“This is something special,” said Kucherov. “You’re never going to forget it.”
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