The New York Islanders were the belles of the bubble last summer.
After finishing in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division in the Covid-truncated regular season, New York made a Cinderella-like trip through the postseason, starting in the preliminary round in Toronto.
They won two rounds of playoffs to reach the conference finals for the first time since 1993, and pushed the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning to six games before losing.
With one bold move Wednesday, the Islanders showed they’re not satisfied with just one deep underdog postseason run. They want to be among the favorites in the 2021 postseason.
Less than a week before the NHL trade deadline (April 12), Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello made the league’s first big move when he acquired scoring wing Kyle Palmieri and veteran center Travis Zajac, a player Lamoriello drafted and developed with the Devils, for a first-round pick in 2021, minor leaguers A.J. Greer and Mason Jobst and a conditional fourth-round pick.
The Islanders were actually already building well off the momentum of last season’s strong finish. They woke up Wednesday tied with the Washington Capitals for the first place in the East Division. New York even played well after captain Anders Lee left the lineup with an ACL injury suffered March 11, going 8-4-0 since then.
Lee’s injury left the Islanders were two choices.
On the one hand they could be aggressive in pursuit of Palmieri, Buffalo’s Tyler Hall or another scoring wing to replace Lee’s production. In a season where nearly every team is close against the NHL salary-cap ceiling, they could take advantage of Long Term Injured Reserve — with Lee and retired defenseman Johnny Boychuk both on LTIR — to add payroll and exceed the cap.
On the other hand, they could stand pat. They were still deep up front even without Lee. Heck, the 35-year-old Zajac has 18 points in 33 games this season but might not have a spot in the lineup when he lands in Long Island. With a team strong enough to win another round or two, and a new arena set to open some time next season, the Islanders were already on the right trajectory.
With ownership’s blessing to spend, management chose the former path and now have a team so strong that Zajac was willing to waive his no-trade clause to leave New Jersey for New York.
The 30-year-old Palmieri has been scoring at a rate a little below his career pace (eight goals in 34 games), but he’s shooting just 9.5 percent (he’s shot 13.6 percent in the past five seasons combined). He’ll be playing on a deeper team and should be reinvigorated going from a team battling to stay ahead of lowly Buffalo to one challenging for a division title.
Palmieri and Zajac are both unrestricted free agents after this season and retaining them might be difficult. The cap is going to stay flat and the Islanders have to take care of restricted free agents Anthony Beauvillier and Adam Pelech. This deal wasn’t made with any thought of the future, though.
For the price of one pick late in the first round, the Islanders added a scorer that several of their competitors coveted in Palmieri, and veteran leadership that could pay off in the postseason with Zajac. And they even got the Devils to retain 50 percent of the salary of cap hit of the two players they dealt, reported as $5.2 million by CapFriendly.com.
This trade could be a steal. The only way it’s a flop is if Palmieri doesn’t find his scoring touch and the Islanders are somehow eliminated without a return to the NHL semifinals.
It’s the type of deal that tells a fan base that Isles management desperately wants to end the franchise’s Cup drought that dates back to 1983. But more importantly, it rewards the players for what they accomplished last summer and this season, and gives them the help they need to possibly finish their mission in 2021.