The New Jersey Devils got the trade winds moving in a big way yesterday evening. Just around 8 PM, they had announced they were trading Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to the New York Islanders for a 2021 first-round pick, forwards A.J. Greer and Mason Probst, and a 2022 fourth-round selection.
The fourth-round pick has conditions on it, depending on if the Islanders make the Stanley Cup Final.
Trading Palmieri and Zajac marks the end of an era for the Devils. Zajac has spent his whole career in New Jersey since the organization selected him with a first-round pick at the 2004 Draft. Palmieri has been with the Devils since they acquired him at the 2015 Draft, so they were two of the team’s longest-tenured members.
The trade is sure to be the first of what will be a busy week for the Devils leading up to Mondy’s trade deadline. It’s a good start for a team that is undoubtedly selling and looking to rely on youth for the rest of the season. And this move should have significant implications for the offseason.
Plus, a quick update on Devils’ top prospect Alexander Holtz and where things stand as Djurgården looks to make a push into the SHL playoffs.
Palmieri, Zajac’s Seasons to Date
Palmieri had gotten off to quite the slow start this season. He had no goals in his first nine games, but he’s started to pick things up since then. He has eight goals and 13 points in his last 25 games and had started to look more like himself before the trade occurred.
Still, there’s no question Palmieri is having a down season by his standards. He’s shooting 9.5 percent for the season and is a 12.6 percent shooter for his career. He’s due for some positive shooting regression, and there’s a good chance he’s going to get it playing alongside Mat Barzal.
Palmieri’s goals above replacement (GAR) of minus-1.1 is also well below where’d you expect him to be. For reference, he had a GAR of 32.5 over the three previous seasons, so he is due for a rebound.
As for Zajac, he’s been on quite the scoring bender as of late. He has 15 points over his last 18 games, so that surely made him an attractive target for the Islanders. With that said, he’s shooting 20.6 percent this season and is averaging only a shot on goal per game. Unlike Palmieri, he’s probably due for some regression in the other direction.
Considering all that, the Devils did pretty well for themselves in coming out with a first-round pick. Now let’s take a look at what they may be able to do with it once the offseasons gets going.
Late 2021 First-Round Prospects Offer Intrigue
The key piece in this trade is the first-round pick without question. The Devils will have a top 10, perhaps top 5, pick of their own come the entry draft in July. Though the Islanders’ pick is likely to fall somewhere in the late 20s, the back half of the first round has plenty of talented players the Devils would probably have interest in.
We’ll start with the USHL and USDP, where a slew of high-end offensive prospects are likely to get drafted in the late first round. Among them are forwards Matthew Coronato, Sasha Pastujov, Dylan Duke, Matthew Samoskevich and perhaps Chaz Lucius if he slips a bit because of injury concerns.
There are a few Russian prospects of note, like Nikita Chibrikov, Fyodor Svechkov Daniil Chayka and Prokhor Poltapov, who should be available. The Devils have not been shy about drafting Russians under Director of Scouting Paul Castron, so that’s certainly on the table.
This, of course, is if the Devils decide to use the extra first-round pick at the draft. With so many teams tight on cap space due to revenue loss from empty arenas because of the COVID pandemic, the Devils are in maybe the best position they’ve been to weaponize cap space in an offseason. But using it to make a selection at the 2021 Draft is an option they’re sure to consider.
Guess Who’s Back? It’s Old Friend, Weaponizing Cap Space
Palmieri and Zajac were both pending unrestricted free agents. But now that they’re off the books for sure, the Devils project to have just over $37 million in cap space this offseason. You don’t need me to tell you that is a lot of money, especially in an environment where many NHL teams don’t have that luxury.
And that’s where the Devils should be able to take advantage. “Weaponizing cap space” has been a pretty popular phrase with the Devils over the last few years. They did it a bit last offseason when they acquired Andreas Johnsson and Ryan Murray in separate deals. But if there was ever an offseason to weaponize cap space, it’s going to be this one.
The salary cap will remain flat at $81.5 million once again, and it’s going to be hard for teams to retain all the players they want while staying cap compliant. That’ll force them to move money, and the Devils are one of the very few teams who can add money to their salary cap.
Plus, there’s the looming expansion draft. Teams will not be able to protect all of their best players, so that’s another opportunity for the Devils to swoop in and use their extra first-round pick as trade bait to add NHL-ready talent to their roster.
As for the players they received in the deal, Greer’s had some pretty decent seasons in the AHL and should help a struggling Binghamton Devils team, but he’s unlikely to see NHL time. Jobst should provide depth for Binghamton too, but that’s it.
All in all, the Devils got a solid return. It may look underwhelming at first (I certainly thought it was). But it’s not going to be easy for sellers to acquire first-round picks this deadline, and general manager Tom Fitzgerald pulled it off. Now, it opens up some potentially rewarding options for them to keep improving their roster in what will be a crucial offseason.
An Update on Holtz
Before concluding this post, I wanted to give a brief update on Holtz and how his SHL season is going. He had arguably the best game of his SHL campaign yesterday, totaling two goals and two assists in Djurgarden’s 7-2 rout of Frolunda.
With the win, Djurgarden advances to Game 3 in their SHL play-in to qualify for the playoffs. If Djurgarden were to lose today, they’d fail to make the playoffs, meaning Holtz’s season would be over. My guess is the Devils will want to get him signed to an entry-level deal if that’s the case. He’d have to go through a seven-day quarantine and the visa process before playing on North American ice this season, but that’s something to keep an eye on this week too.
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Advanced stats from Evolving-Hockey
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017