When New York Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello acquired Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac at the 2021 NHL Trade Deadline, the duo was expected to add scoring depth and veteran leadership in the absence of captain Anders Lee. It didn’t quite work out that way at first; Palmieri scored four points (two goals, two assists) in 17 games with the Islanders, and Zajac had two points (one goal, one assist) in 13 games.
However, the Islanders are in the midst of a deep playoff run after beating the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins and will meet the Tampa Bay Lightning in the third round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second season in a row. Although the regular season didn’t quite pan as Lamoriello might have imagined, Palmieri and Zajac are two big reasons the Islanders have won two series so far.
Palmieri struggled to find the back of the net and sometimes looked out of place in the regular season. However, toward the end of the season, he started to build chemistry with linemates J.G. Pageau and Oliver Wahlstrom, which has since carried into the playoffs. Palmieri now leads the team with seven goals in 12 games.
“You’re seeing he’s getting into those greasy areas,” head coach Barry Trotz said on MSG Networks about Palmieri scoring “Lee-type” goals. “He’s getting rewarded for it.”
That’s high praise and deserved. After weeks of struggling to gel with his new team, Palmieri has found his inner Islander. He is starting to fill the scoring hole left by Lee who suffered an ACL injury in March. According to Money Puck, five of Palmieri’s seven goals were scored inches outside the goaltender’s crease, including four in the six-game series against the Bruins.
Palmieri now has a staggering 29.2 shot percentage (S%), and he’s making the most of his opportunities, which is exactly what Lamoriello was hoping for at the trade deadline.
Heading into the postseason, Zajac had played his way into the role of 13th forward. Like Palmieri, he struggled to find his game and seemed destined to watch most of the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the press box. However, an injury to Wahlstrom in the first round against the Penguins forced Zajac in the lineup for the last seven games; and he’s been fantastic.
“It’s been a great experience. I came from a team where if you weren’t under 25, you didn’t fit in,” Zajac admitted. “But here it’s a little different. It’s a veteran team and they play with structure, they play with commitment, and it’s an easy group to come in… they’re all smart hockey players and they all have experience.”
With some of the pressure lifted from being the oldest player in the locker room, Zajac has turned his focus to his game and what Trotz wants from him. In Game 6 against the Bruins, he opened the scoring with his first goal of the playoffs to give the Islanders an early, and he was thrilled.
His goal last night aside, Zajac isn’t a regular on the scoresheet with just two points in postseason seven games. However, he knows his role, and he’s playing it well alongside Pageau and Palmieri.
“When the game is only the line, he finds a way to get it done,” Trotz said. “Now the games are mattering most and he’s in the lineup and you see his contributions. What I’m surprised the most about Travis is his ability to win puck battles… there’s a determination, there’s a skill to it. He’s not afraid to get his body involved… he’s got a really good hockey IQ in terms of instincts not only defensively, but offensively as well.”
Zajac only made the postseason twice when he was with the New Jersey Devils, including a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2012, and he is basking in this new competitive environment. “I’m definitely not taking it for granted,” Zajac said. “It’s been a great experience so far and I want to keep it going. It’s a great group of guys, it’s a team that they all enjoy each other’s company… they do things the right way and it’s a fun part to be a part of.”
Trade Deadline Win
Before anyone knew Palmieri and Zajac would become Islanders, some had decided that Taylor Hall would be the best fit for the club. Ironically, he went to the Bruins instead, his preferred destination, and before the postseason, most believed the Bruins’ had fared better at the deadline than the Islanders.
• Hall (regular season with Boston): 16 games, 8-6-14
• Palmieri (regular season with Isles): 17 GP, 2-2-4
• Zajac (regular season with Isles): 13 GP, 1-1-2(from, ‘Islanders grind down another good team on their way to the semifinals,’ The Athletic, 06/10/2021)
Yet, when the stakes were highest, Palmieri and Zajac proved to be much more valuable, while Hall was mostly invisible in the series.
• Hall (playoffs with Boston): 11 games, 3-2-5
• Palmieri (playoffs with Isles): 12 GP, 7-2-9
• Zajac (playoffs with Isles): 7 GP, 1-1-2
The Islanders and their head coach had plenty of high praise for their newest teammates after the team their second series victory in the 2021 Playoffs.
“It says a lot about them. Not only as hockey players, but more as people. They assimilated with this group very well. They have great personalities, they have great professionalism… I think they’re having a ball. They missed the playoffs, they missed the intensity. They’re a part of it now and they’re a big part of it,” Trotz said (from Joe Pantorno, amNY).
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“I can’t say enough good things about those guys, not only as players, but as people. Two additions that really went a long way for us,” said Josh Bailey (from Joe Pantorno, amNY).
Their teammates understand just how valuable Palmieri and Zajac are to the Islanders on and off the ice, and will count on them as they head into their series against the Lightning.
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James is a THW New York Islanders writer and podcast host of Nassaumen Hockey Podcast. A trusted source for Islanders content for many years at THW, James is passionate about keeping Islander fans up to date on the latest in Islanders news. Other content contributions also include his Co-Editor-in-Chief status for NYIslesBlog.com. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow James on Twitter.