Trade grades: Islanders smartly improve Cup chances with Palmieri deal

NHL

The New York Islanders have made a splashy play ahead of the NHL’s Apr. 12 trade deadline, dealing for veteran New Jersey Devils forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac.

The Isles dealt depth players A.J. Greer and Mason Jobst to the Devils, along with their first-round pick in the 2021 draft, and a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2022 draft. The Devils will be retaining 50% of Palmieri and Zajac’s cap hits as part of the terms.

How did both GMs do in this swap? Here are our grades for the trade:

GM Lou Lamoriello said it best when explaining the Islanders’ trade for Palmieri and Zajac: There are no surprises with these two. “I know what they bring on the ice. I also know what kind of people they are and what they bring to the locker room. Chemistry is very important for me,” he said.

They’ve played against these Islanders with frequency. They’ve played with New York defenseman Andy Greene, who was a career Devils defenseman before Lou reached over to Jersey and added him for the Islanders at last season’s trade deadline. For better or for worse, there are no surprises here about the players the Islanders acquired.

It’ll mostly be for the better.

Palmieri is having a down year. There’s no getting around that. The question is whether a short-term change in scenery can reignite his offense. He’s been better than 0.33 goals per game since 2015-16; this season, he’s at 0.24, with eight goals in 34 games. He’s not been lower than 0.66 points per game during that span; this season, he’s at 0.50. Palmieri has some encouraging underlying numbers (51.41 expected goals percentage). This isn’t a case of his production hitting some kind of sudden, steep decline. Whether they deploy him on the left of Mathew Barzal or on the right of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Palmieri is going to help fill the offensive void left by the loss of Anders Lee for the season.

Zajac was an interesting addition to the deal. His best days are behind him, and he’s managed a 46.88 expected goals percentage at 5-on-5. Like Palmieri, he’s been a sub-replacement-level player for the Devils this season. His calling card used to be as a penalty killer, but he’s been ineffective there, too.

What he is at 35 years old is a strong character player who can chip in on offense (18 points in 33 games) while playing a bottom-six role. It also gives the Islanders considerable experience and depth at the center spot: Barzal, Brock Nelson, Pageau, Casey Cizikas and now Zajac. Lamoriello drafted him. Lamoriello knows him. He’ll be properly cast by Barry Trotz.

This isn’t the kind of trade that secures a Stanley Cup for the Islanders. But it is the kind of trade that, if they’re so blessed to hoist the chalice at the end of the season, they’ll look back on as having added vital pieces to complete the puzzle. And it didn’t cost them much at all, given that the return didn’t include a upper-tier prospect, and did include a first-round pick in a very mysterious draft.


If the market for Palmieri was as robust as it appeared to be — the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins were among the reportedly interested teams — then one wonders if the Devils couldn’t have acquired a prospect, rather than a low first-round pick in a draft that many general managers admit is a complete crapshoot thanks to the lack of in-person scouting and other COVID-related impacts.

Essentially, that’s what the trade was: Palmieri for a first-rounder. Greer and Jobst are depth talents on expiring contracts, although Greer has the potential to contribute. Zajac’s trade value was extremely limited due to his age, effectiveness and full no-trade clause. It was likely going to be a team in the New York metropolitan area or back home in Winnipeg, or it was nothing. So the conditional fourth-rounder for Zajac is what it is.

As I’ve written about before, it’s a weird NHL trade deadline. Maybe given all the odd forces affecting teams, this was the best return that GM Tom Fitzgerald could get for Palmieri in a down season. That’s something we’ll know for sure when the dust settles after Monday’s deadline.

And it’s not out of the question that the Devils have gotten a first-round pick for a player that’s back on their roster next season via unrestricted free agency. Fitzgerald called trading Palmieri “a business decision between Kyle and this organization at this moment.” I asked Fitzgerald about that possibility; he shut it down by saying Palmieri is now on another team and he can’t comment. Which wasn’t a “no.”

Still, the value coming back to New Jersey for having retained 50% of both players’ salaries should have been a bit more than a low first-rounder, two depth players and a fourth-round pick that becomes a third if the Islanders make the Stanley Cup Final.

Now they’re left hoping that the Islanders stumble a bit to make that first-rounder a higher one. Well, everyone but their GM is hoping that, apparently.

“I hope the pick we get is the 32nd pick. I hope both of these gentlemen win the Cup,” said Fitzgerald.

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