The New York Islanders acquired Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac last night from the New Jersey Devils for a 2021 first-round pick, a conditional 2022 fourth-round pick, AJ Greer, and Mason Jobst.
Isles general manager Lou Lamoriello had been rumored to be interested in Palmieri, and even Zajac, for a long time now, and he was able to acquire the two forwards to help bolster a lineup that’s without their captain, Anders Lee, and looking to make another deep playoff run.
In a post-trade media conference, Lamoriello stated, “the way (the team) came together (after Lee’s injury) played a role in whatever I could do to get them some support and some help… I felt it was the right thing to do.”
The Islanders are 9-4-0 since losing Lee for the season to injury on March 11 vs. the Devils. Despite the loss of their captain, Barry Trotz, and co. proved that the Islanders are still equipped for a playoff run while in a dog fight with the Washington Capitals for first place in the MassMutual East Division.
Acquiring two veterans like Palmieri and Zajac shows that the Islanders are all in on their hopes at winning a Stanley Cup this season, having forked over a first-round pick two years in a row now.
“You always want to make your team better,” Lamoriello said. “You have to be careful of the decisions that you make… If there’s a chance to get better, you have to do that.
“They’re both very important or else we not would have acquired them… We’re excited.”
The truth of the matter is, in a year where junior leagues and overseas competition is as spotty as ever, the first-round pick is as much a gamble as any pick in rounds 2-7. The Islanders (for now) still own their two second-round picks, which can retrieve them the same kind of talent they would have drafted late in the first round of the NHL Draft.
So what do Palmieri and Zajac bring to the table?
Palmieri is clearly in a down year, one where he hasn’t put the puck in the back of the net as much as he usually has in the past. He has five seasons under his belt in which he scored 24 or more goals, including one 30-goal season during the 2015-16 season. Through 34 games played in the 2020-21 season, Palmieri has accrued eight goals and 17 points on a Devils team that is… well, not good.
The Islanders acquired Palmieri with the hopes that he can regain his scoring touch on a better, more structured team, likely playing in a top-six role. The motivation is certainly there, going from a team at the bottom of the division to a first-place organization.
“The opportunity to go and be a part of a team that has a chance to do something special is something every player wants,” Palmieri said. “That’s all you can ask for. I’m really looking forward to this opportunity.”
Palmieri has been one of the league’s best goal scorers since the 2015-16 season, potting 140 goals in 397 games played.
Zajac is a career two-way center with the Devils, so it’ll be interesting to see how Trotz deploys him, however, he’s an incredible depth piece for the Islanders. His style of play should translate well into the Islanders lineup, playing well in his own end, while also contributing on the scoresheet. He owns a career 51.3% Corsi-for, and despite New Jersey’s poor play, Zajac still owns a 50.9% Corsi-for through 33 games played this season.
Zajac is getting it done on the scoresheet with seven points (four goals, three assists) in his last 10 games played and seven goals, 18 points on the season.
It’s likely Zajac plays in a middle-six role, and injecting a 44-point pace over an 82-game span is a big boost to the Islanders’ forward depth.
What’s most encouraging about the Zajac acquisition is his willingness to waive his no-trade clause to come to the Islanders. Lamoriello tried to trade for Zajac last season, but he wasn’t willing to waive at the time.
“I’m extremely excited for this opportunity,” Zajac said. “At [this] point in my career and where I’m at, I want a chance to win. I just believe this is a team that has all the aspects of a winning hockey team and to be able to try and be a part of that and help them in any way possible … I think it was just, for me, it was the right time.
“I was fortunate enough to have a great career in New Jersey and a lot of great memories, a lot of great people along the way, players, coaches, staff. But I think it just came down to, at this point I want a chance to try and reach that ultimate goal.”
Lamoriello is proving to his head coach and his players that he believes the Islanders have something special brewing. The Islanders’ newest players in Palmieri and Zajac not only fill holes needed in the lineup but add a substantial amount of depth necessary for a deep run in the playoffs.
The Islanders should now be considered a favorite in the East, and with a little over $3 million left in cap space, Lamoriello might not be done bringing in some reinforcements.
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