When New York Islanders captain Anders Lee went down with a season-ending knee injury in March, it dictated what the team would look for at the trade deadline. Not only did they need to make up for Lee’s scoring ability, but they also needed a veteran presence and depth. When general manager Lou Lamoriello acquired Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the New Jersey Devils, the worry subsided, however briefly.
Now that the Islanders’ 2020-21 season is over after another semi-final loss in the playoffs, we can turn our attention to the offseason and, particularly, will or rather should Lamoriello bring back Palmieri, who is a pending unrestricted free agent.
Palmieri played a role in helping the Islanders reach their second straight Stanley Cup Semifinal series, even if his scoring dried up near the end. His seven goals through the first two series against tough opponents, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins, proved he was an asset on a team desperate for scoring, though that opinion was not shared by Islanders’ head coach Barry Trotz.
Trotz, a future Hockey Hall of Famer, has a point; these types of questions aren’t asked if a team wins, something the Islanders have done a lot of over the last two postseasons. However, despite his pedigree, it’s not hard to make a case for more depth scoring, which Palmieri brings to the table. Even with youngsters in the wings (no pun intended), chomping at the bit to make the NHL, keeping Palmieri, especially with Lee returning for the 2021-22 season, would be an enormous offensive boost. Though it’s still relatively early in the process, during the Islanders’ end-of-year press availability, Lamoriello had this to say about bringing back Palmieri.
“If the question is, would we like to have Kyle Palmieri back? The answer is yes,” Lamoriello said. “I have had a conversation with Kyle and I have asked him if he would want to come back if something could potentially be worked out, and the answer was yes. He knows our circumstances with the cap. He is a total free agent, so he is outside the expansion thought process. We potentially cannot keep every player, so you never know what transpires. We have an open mind. Our coaching staff felt the same way, how well he fit in and his success in the playoffs. He is someone we have a strong intention to bring back, if possible”(from, “Casey Cizikas, Kyle Palmieri, Kraken expansion draft: Lou Lamoriello on a difficult Islanders offseason,” The Athletic, 6/29/2021).
That isn’t bad news, but it isn’t great either. The Islanders’ cap situation will hamper their ability to keep Palmieri, though it seems both sides are willing to see how things shake out. Re-signing Adam Pelech, Anthony Beavuillier, and Ilya Sorokin needs to happen before any other moves are made. Lamoriello also needs to decide to bring back Casey Cizikas, who may take a discount but will still need to be massaged under the cap. Palmieri played very well as a third-line winger alongside center J.G. Pageau and could mentor Oliver Wahlstrom, help take pressure off the young sniper and give him room to operate. But how can Lamoriello fit it all under the cap?
The flat salary cap presents a tricky situation for the Islanders. One option would be to expose or willingly set up a scenario in which Jordan Eberle is exposed for the Seattle Kraken to select in the expansion draft, which would open a spot – and salary room – to re-sign Palmieri. The two players have been nearly identical over the last few seasons, down to their age and salary. Palmieri didn’t get much time with Mathew Barzal after he joined the Islanders, and what time he did get didn’t paint a good enough picture to know if it would work or not. Is that a risk the GM is willing to take? Considering the consistent position he’s taken in keeping the team together, this option seems like a stretch. However, he does have a good relationship with Palmieri, and with Lee returning, it could be an opportunity to bring up another young player to slot in on the third line.
Another plan might be to expose defenseman Nick Leddy, a slightly more realistic scenario considering his age and the other defensemen the team will likely want to keep. While this presents a problem for their defense, the Islanders have some up-and-coming players ready to make the jump to the NHL, and they can retain 39-year-old Andy Greene to continue to provide a veteran presence. Greene is already on the books for the 2021-22 season due to his bonuses and the Islanders’ LTIR situation, so bringing him back at the league minimum salary might ease the blow. He can also split time with a rookie defenseman like Samuel Bolduc, Robin Salo, or Bode Wilde, who are all on entry-level deals.
Leddy is a trusted member of the Islanders’ back-end and a Trotz favorite. But with just one more season on his contract at $5.5 million, his time on Long Island was likely going to end after next season anyway. He’s coming off of his best offensive season since 2017-18, in considerably fewer games. While exposing him may seem counterintuitive – the Isles needed some help from the back-end this season – his offensive output coupled with Stanley Cup-winning pedigree could keep a deal to select Leddy on the cheaper side. If Lamoriello can control what he gives up without losing any prospects or picks, it’s tough to say they lose.
If Palmieri’s stay on Long Island becomes brief – if internal and external forces end up making this decision – the Islanders have internal options that are cheaper – a necessary part of today’s cap gymnastics. Wahlstrom doesn’t have Palmieri’s experience, but he’s proving to be as lethal as an offensive player.
In the 2020-21 season, Wahlstrom made huge strides. His confidence with the puck, amazing passes, and his natural goal-scoring ability to get pucks to the net showed management and fans that he’s ready for full-time NHL duties. He played well next to Pageau and whatever winger they were paired with, another good sign he’s adapting to the league. Most of all, Wahlstrom adds a deadly shot on the power play, and after their special teams dried up against the Tampa Bay Lightning this season, his shot is necessary. After an injury in the first-round against the Penguins, he lost his spot to the veteran Zajac, a move Isles country continues to discuss.
Wahlstrom will likely be in the lineup next season whether Palmieri is on the team or not. If not, Wahlstrom “replacing” Palmieri will likely mean more around playoff time when the Islanders will need to find a way to make up for Palmieri’s seven post-season goals.
Given how well the Islanders have played over the last three seasons, I can’t argue that Palmieri will make or break the team. He would help, there’s no discussion there, but the team and their system have proved they’re much more than the sum of their parts, with different heroes propelling them to the next step in consecutive seasons. As Lamoriello said, if it’s possible, especially with the added complexity of the expansion draft, Palmieri may be back in blue and orange, but it will take some work and other tough decisions to get there.
Want more Islanders content? Check out the Nassaumen Hockey Podcast, hosted by The Hockey Writers authors James Nichols and Jon Zella. Follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts!
Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.