Hockey

NY Islanders Acquire Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from NJ Devils By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com

“If I may, I’d like to make a little statement…I intend to go straight on and forge ahead to the $99,000.00 answer.” — Ralph Kramden, (Honeymooners, $99,000.00 Answer).

Well Islanders fans, GM Lou Lamoriello is no Ralph Kramden (that’s a good thing), however, he might well be just as boastful; especially now that he’s reunited with two more of his former Devils cornerstones — Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac — in pursuit of his fourth career Stanley Cup ring. 

Wednesday night, April 7, 2021, might well one day be looked back upon by Islanders fans with the same type of nostalgia as they do with March 10, 1980. 

March 10, 1980, was the day that then GM Bill Torrey sent Bill Harris and Dave Lewis to the LA Kings in exchange for what he believed to be the missing piece on the Islanders; a top-tier, two-way center who would create stability on the second-line, by the name of Butch Goring. We all know how that turned out as the Isles went on to win four-straight Stanley Cups.

Well, on April 7, 2021, the current Isles GM, Lou Lamoriello reached back into his past, to a time when he was the man at the helm for the NJ Devils and managed to pull not one, but two rabbits out of his hat. 

Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac were staples of those Lamoriello-led Devils teams and now they rejoin him on Long Island as the Boys from Long Island look to capture their first Stanley Cup championship since 1983.

There were rumors at last season’s trade deadline that Lamoriello was attempting to reunite with Zajac, as well as with former Devils Captain, Zach Parise. Those rumors did not come to pass, although they did persist into the off-season. However, while those moves did not pan out in 2020, Lamoriello did bring Andy Greene — the then current Devils Captain — to Long Island in exchange for the Islanders’ 2021 second-round draft pick.

The move to acquire Greene helped shore up the blue line at a time when injuries and overwork were mounting. It also brought in a veteran presence who had a wealth of playoff experience to share.

Now, one crazy year later, Lamoriello has brought more former Devils to Long Island as reinforcements as he again attempts to etch his name on the Stanley Cup. 

This year’s Islanders team has been through the playoff grind twice the past two years. They have one of the top Head Coaches in the game in the form of Barry Trotz. They have a dynamite Number One center in Mathew Barzal. Ryan Pulock, for all his snack-bitten goal-scoring ways is an upper-tier defenseman and Semyon Varlamov is playing at a Vezina-worthy level in goal. 

Long-time LA Kings Television Analyst, Jim Fox has repeatedly told me that for a team to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, they need three things: 1) a Number One center. 2) a Number One defenseman. 3) a Number One goalie.

In other words, check, check, check for the Islanders.

The Nassaumen even have quality depth throughout their lines and on the back end. They also have a rookie goalie in Ilya Sorokin who has been nothing short of impressive during his limited playing time. 

So, what’s missing?

Beyond the fact the Isles are remarkably thin in terms of defensive depth beyond the starting six, the team is without its Captain, Anders Lee for the rest of the season (and post-season) and they’ve also had a revolving door of wingers on the third-line as nobody has been able to lock down the job. It shouldn’t be that hard to find a steady presence for the third-line when your two linemates are J.G. Pageau, who himself was acquired at last season’s trade deadline to bolster the Isles attack and rookie Oliver Wahlstrom, who has not only secured an everyday role, but has also thrust himself into the Calder Trophy conversation; even if nobody expects him to take home the award.

Well, Lamoriello just filled both those holes in a two-for-one deal. 

Kyle Palmieri, who is a pending free agent after this season, and the Devils were unable to come to terms on a contract extension. So, the Devils decided to move on from the reliable winger. And with Palmieri wielding an eight-team modified no-trade clause, the Devils knew they had to work with him, to get a deal done.

Now, Palmieri goes from a team that was only staying out of the division cellar due to the complete ineptitude of the Sabres, to a team battling for first-place and with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations. Oh, and his new linemates are likely to be Mathew Barzal and either Jordan Eberle or Josh Bailey; which certainly doesn’t hurt.

Palmieri, for one, is excited about the prospect of joining the Islanders: “When I kinda heard that the Isles could be an option, I couldn’t have been more excited. As the days wore on here, there was a little bit of anxiety in terms of waiting for that call. I got that call tonight and it was difficult to contain the excitement.”

“I think the opportunity to go and be a part of a team that has a chance to do something special is something every player wants,” continued Palmieri. “And that’s all you can ask for.”

As for Zajac, his role will likely be to solidify the Isles third-line; one that could very well be among the best in the league depending on what combination and assignments Trotz and his staff decide upon. To start, I’d hesitate to guess that the line will consist of Zajac, Pageau and Wahlstrom; although that’s certainly not set in stone as Trotz could get creative with any number of his top-nine forwards.

“It’s a bolt of energy for sure,” explained Zajac. “You’re excited to come in this situation and come to a team that just does things the right way. They know how to win.”

 And for Zajac, you know his excitement is genuine given the fact he waived his full no-trade clause in order to come to Long Island in pursuit of his first Stanley Cup.

“I think at the point of my career and where I’m at, I want a chance to win,” Zajac told reporters shortly after the trade was announced. “And I believe this is a team that has all the aspects of a winning hockey team.”

For Lamoriello, beyond the obvious help these two bring to the Islanders offense, it was a clear no-brainer to make the deal that will ensure (barring a trade) the Isles will go two-straight years without a first-round draft pick.

I know Travis quite well, drafted him,” Lamoriello explained to reporters. “I spent a lot of time with him. 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.”

I know who they are as people,” continued Lamoriello. “And how well they’ll fit in the locker room here. Chemistry is extremely important to me, but their experience, talent, competitiveness, especially in this division, there is an excitement.”

With only a few weeks left until the start of the playoffs, chemistry is going to be key as Trotz and his staff attempt to integrate Palmieri and Zajac into the lineup. So it’s good Lamoriello didn’t wait until Monday to pull the trigger. Of course, by then, both players might have already been sent elsewhere.

According to Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun, multiple teams had interest in Palmieri (no surprise there). Among those teams are two powerhouses in Boston and Toronto, so, not only did the Islanders do well to improve, but they also made sure their opponents did not.

Granted, it’s not like Palmieri and Zajac were the only apples of Lamoriello’s eye. The veteran GM was also rumored to have serious interest in Buffalo’s Taylor Hall; although he pivoted away from the Sabres shortly before nailing down the deal with New Jersey. There were even rumors the Isles were interested in the Kings’ Alex Iafallo. 

Now, I’m not saying the Islanders are done, they do after all still have around $3M in cap space remaining, but Lamoriello’s remarks to the media make it seem like he’s got his big ticket items and will now be content to see how the dice roll, rather than being aggressive. 

Let’s be honest, he’s earned that right.

And while some may balk at the price the Boys from Long Island paid — they gave up their 2021 first-round draft pick, a conditional 2022 fourth-round pick, as well as minor league forwards A.J. Greer and Mason Jobst, all for two players on expiring contracts. The point is that the Islanders are going for it all and in order to do so, you have to occasionally make some tough decisions. 

I can assure you, this wasn’t one of those.

Not only was this an easy call for Lamoriello to make, but it also allows him to not have to jump through hoops for next season’s salary cap since Palmieri and Zajac will be off the books by then; hopefully with a ring on their fingers. 

Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald is certainly hoping for that outcome as he told the media: “I hope the pick we get is the 32nd pick. I hope both of these gentlemen win the Cup.”

That’s in reference to the 2021 first-round pick the Isles gave up. And for those of you wondering what the condition is on the 2022 fourth-round pick, multiple sources have reported that it will become a third-round pick in either 2022 or 2023 (depending on the Isles choice) if the Boys from Long Island make it to the Stanley Cup Final this year.

Sounds reasonable to me. This is clearly a team in win-now mode and Lamoriello just pushed his chips to the center of the table.

And just to put the cherry on top, let’s hear from two loyal members of the Islanders Faithful.

ROB TAUB (NYIslesBlog.com): “This is a fantastic deal for the Isles. They added a goal scorer in Palmieri and a boatload of experience with Zajac. They are all in this year. Lou Lamoriello proves he’s still one of the best GM’s in the league.

MICHAEL O’BRIEN: “Great trade. Provides tremendous depth. Gave up a late round first-round pick for a chance at a Cup. Very little downside to this trade at all.

Now all that’s left for the Islanders to do is to remember who the composer was of “Swanee River.

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