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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Kyle Palmieri is off the board.
The April 12 NHL trade deadline is fast approaching, and the New York Islanders completed a blockbuster East Division trade with the New Jersey Devils Wednesday night, acquiring Palmieri, one of the top wingers on the market, and veteran center Travis Zajac in exchange for two American Hockey League forwards, A.J. Greer and Mason Jobst, a first-round draft pick this year and a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2022 draft.
The Devils had been trying to extend Palmieri, a Long Island native who grew up in New Jersey, but negotiations fell through in recent days, and it was clear the 30-year-old was on his way out when he was scratched Sunday against the Washington Capitals.
“Kyle and I and his agents were trying to see if we could hash out a deal to bring Kyle back,” Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald said over Zoom following the trade. “During the negotiations, we had some differences and got to the point where we felt that because of the amount of interest teams were showing in Kyle, it was probably appropriate for the organization to listen and see what Kyle thought.”
In recent years, teams have been hesitant to trade with divisional foes. But with the COVID-19 pandemic shaking up the 2021 season, some shake-ups at the trade deadline were expected. Plus, this trade shouldn’t be a huge surprise given the parties involved.
Fitzgerald and his counterpart on Long Island, former New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello, traded with one another last season as members of the Metropolitan Division. Longtime New Jersey captain Andy Greene went to the Islanders, reuniting with Lamoriello.
Fitzgerald also worked for Lamoriello briefly when he was hired in New Jersey ahead of the 2015-16 season. Their relationship goes back 35 years to when Fitzgerald played at Providence College, where Lamoriello served as the athletic director.
This trade fills needs for both teams. It was an aggressive move by the Islanders and a necessary one for the Devils, even if the return was good but maybe not great. Let’s get into the winners and losers.
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Kathy Willens/Associated Press
With Anders Lee out for the season with a torn ACL, the Islanders filled a big need by bringing in Palmieri, who can fill that top-line left wing spot with Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle. Palmieri typically plays on the right side, but he played on the left earlier in his career with the Anaheim Ducks, so it’s not a drastic switch.
He hasn’t been scoring at the same rate this season (eight goals and 17 points in 34 games), but he’ll get chances on a line with Barzal.
Since 2015-16, Palmieri is tied for 11th in the NHL with 53 power-play goals. He hasn’t scored fewer than 20 goals in a season since he’s been in New Jersey, and he has a shot that can beat goalies clean.
Plus, this is an easy move for him to make considering Palmieri and his wife, Ashlee, have a home on Long Island.
Zajac is a smart, savvy, veteran two-way center. The Islanders don’t have a need for centers with Barzal, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Casey Cizikas and Brock Nelson, but Zajac is the type of player Lamoriello covets. Palmieri might be the key aspect of the deal, but the return becomes a big haul as a package with Zajac.
“I know Travis quite well, drafted him. I spent a lot of time with him,” Lamoriello said. “But what he brings on the ice and what he brings to a team atmosphere on the ice and off the ice—and similar with Kyle—is very important that people accept whatever role is given to them, and they give up sometimes their own identity to have success.
“That, to me, is what I’ve seen Travis do year in and year out. Whatever he was asked to do, he did and did it to the highest level.”
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Julio Cortez/Associated Press
The most important part of this deal for the Devils is the first-round draft pick. This team is still in the midst of an arduous rebuild, and the best currency is draft picks and salary-cap space. This year, New Jersey has two picks in the first round, one in the second, two in the third and one each in the fourth through seventh rounds.
The Devils also have a lot of cap space to work with. They have just over $35 million available, which includes 50 percent of Palmieri’s and Zajac’s salaries. Draft picks and cap space are exceptionally important in an expansion-draft year.
This return still feels a little light.
Last year, Fitzgerald showed some major executive chops by getting strong returns in trades with the Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes. He brought in draft picks and a high-end prospect in Nolan Foote. But he also had more assets to work with at last season’s trade deadline.
Palmieri and Zajac were the biggest trade chips he had this year. Defensemen Sami Vatanen, Ryan Murray and Dmitry Kulikov could be moved, but the returns won’t be this high. Sparsely used winger Nikita Gusev might have some value, but it’s unclear how much since he’s been relegated to the taxi squad this season.
Fitzgerald needed to get a first-round pick for Palmieri, and he did exactly that.
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Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Without Palmieri (30) and Zajac (35), Andreas Johnsson is now the oldest regular forward at 26 years old. P.K. Subban is the oldest player on the roster at 31.
The Devils are also currently without captain Nico Hischier, who has been one of the unluckiest players in the NHL this season. The newly minted captain missed time earlier this season with a leg injury and then with COVID-19, and now he’s out after a puck to the face necessitated sinus surgery.
The youth movement is in full swing in New Jersey.
The club is relying on 19-year-old Jack Hughes and 21-year-old Ty Smith. While both have made great strides on the ice this season, it’s impossible to get NHL leadership from two players with limited experience. Subban can step in and play a bigger role in the locker room, but he’s on the downswing of his career, so the influence isn’t the same as when he was in his prime.
Over the last few years, the Devils have had Greene, Zajac and other veterans like Drew Stafford who helped keep the team together when the losses piled up. Those teams still played hard right until the end of the season.
This current group must find some leadership from within.
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Mel Evans/Associated Press
Lou has all of his guys on the island.
Lamoriello drafted Zajac and signed Greene out of college. The duo helped the Devils get to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Lamoriello later brought goalie Cory Schneider to New Jersey on draft day in 2013.
Two years later, he had a hand in bringing Palmieri home to New Jersey.
Ray Shero had been hired as the general manager by new owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer, and Lamoriello was elevated to team president. Palmieri was acquired during the 2015 draft in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks as one of the first moves of the new regime, so technically, Lamoriello has now traded for him twice.
All four players are now with the Islanders.
But it always seemed inevitable that Zajac would reunite with Lamoriello. It was no secret that the Hall of Fame executive has coveted the two-way center for years. There were rumors about Lamoriello trying to trade for Zajac last season. Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman even joked about Lamoriello trading for him on the 31 Thoughts podcast a few weeks ago.
“The reason that you do it is because you know what the player can bring on the ice, as well as what he can bring off the ice,” Lamoriello said.
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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
Last season, Zajac refused to waive his no-trade clause. He wanted to see this rebuild through with the only team for which he had ever played. He wanted to help the young forwards progress, and he wanted to help get the team back to the playoffs.
The Devils had hoped to be competitive this year, but they got stuck in a deep division and hit hard with COVID-19, so little went according to plan. With the writing on the wall, Fitzgerald approached Zajac and offered him the chance to go chase a Stanley Cup.
Zajac recently hit a major milestone with the Devils by skating in his 1,000th game with the team that drafted him out of the University of North Dakota. It’s no small feat—just ask Fitzgerald, who played 1,097 games with seven teams—so it was important for him to reach 1,000 games with New Jersey.
But he hasn’t reached the biggest milestone in an NHL career: a Stanley Cup victory.
“There are not many players in the history of the game that have done what Travis Zajac has done,” Fitzgerald said. “You know what? That would have been important to me too if I had the chance. So he came through that, he played in his 1,000th game, and now the next step is: Can he put himself in a position to do what we all play the game for? That’s to win a Stanley Cup.”
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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
The Devils came into the 2019-20 season with playoff expectations, and everything completely fell apart. The coach was fired. The best player was traded. Their splashy offseason acquisitions turned in disappointing seasons.
Greene was traded. Then Blake Coleman was traded. A popular player fans thought would be a part of a winning future helped another team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, win a Stanley Cup. Now Zajac, the last remaining member of the 2012 Eastern Conference champions and a player many presumed would be a Devil for life, is gone, as is Palmieri, who grew up playing on rinks around Northern New Jersey.
New Jersey has made exactly one playoff appearance since losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2012 Cup Final, bowing out to the Lightning in the first round of the 2018 postseason after winning only a single game.
How did a historic franchise fall so far? And when will it end?
Fitzgerald has said many times that Hischier and Hughes will dictate the speed of the rebuild, and he reiterated that again Wednesday.
He’s not wrong. Teams tend to peak around the time their best young players do, as well. But it’s an answer that offers little clarity at a time when fans would like a more specific timeline.