There’s a three-letter word that is arguably the most important component of any trade deadline acquisition: Fit.
How a player will fit in a locker room. How he will fit with new linemates and within the system played by the team acquiring him. Fit, on and off the ice, is what stands out most about the Islanders' acquisitions of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the New Jersey Devils.
Lou Lamoriello acquired two players he knows well from his days in New Jersey in exchange for forwards A.J. Greer, Mason Jobst, the Islanders' 2021 first-round pick, and a conditional fourth-round pick in 2022. The Devils also retain 50 per cent of both Palmieri's and Zajac’s salaries.
"I am excited to have them be a part of our organization right now,” said Lamoriello. "I know what they bring on the ice, I also know who they are as people and how well they'll fit in the locker room here. Chemistry is extremely important to me.”
Building a championship roster has a lot to do with finding the right puzzle pieces, not just collecting the shiniest ones. Pieces that fit in the right spots to make a team whole. Think of Tampa Bay’s acquisitions of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow last season to form an effective checking line. For the Islanders, the additions of Palmieri and Zajac complement a roster that plays an effective and often under-appreciated style of game.
Here’s what each player brings to their new team and why both appear to be such a good fit with who the Islanders are and how they play.
New guys on the Island pic.twitter.com/lpzVCbFDRi
Palmieri is a goal scorer -- something the Islanders needed after losing captain Anders Lee for the rest of the season to a knee injury. Palmieri is hitting his stride at the right time of year scoring four goals in his past eight games after scoring just four times in his first 26 games. The 30-year-old right winger has averaged over a goal every three games for the past five seasons so it stands to reason that he should be able to provide the Islanders with reliable goal scoring.
In addition to his productive scoring rates in recent years, Palmieri has also put up strong underlying shooting stats this season, which shows that he is still generating quality chances. Palmieri knows how to get open in the critical scoring areas on the ice, averaging 2.8 shot attempts per game from the slot, which ranks 40th in the NHL. Palmieri ranks in the 10th percentile among forwards in terms of the differential between actual goals scored and expected goals (a reflection of shot quality and quantity). Simply, pucks have not gone in at the rate we would expect from Palmieri relative to the chances he’s created this season. With his track record as an effective finisher, it won’t be surprising to see him score as he has for most of his career, which is exactly what the Islanders are counting on.
In addition to goal scoring, Palmieri is also responsible with the puck, something the defensively sound Islanders value. The Islanders rank second in goals-against average and third in expected goals against. A key to their defensive success is how well they manage the puck in the transition zone of the ice -- the neutral zone. No team has allowed fewer rush scoring chances than the Isles who also rank top-three in the league in rush goals against and odd-man rushes against.
New York doesn’t gift opposing teams quick-strike scoring chances and Palmieri’s play in the neutral zone will fit perfectly with how the Islanders play. Palmieri has turned the puck over on just over four per cent of his neutral zone possessions this season, the third-lowest rate of any forward in the NHL with at least 500 minutes played.
When he doesn’t have the puck in the neutral zone, Palmieri does a good job disrupting the opposition's attack, ranking 22nd among forwards in blocked passes.
In addition to adding value at even strength, Palmieri should be able to help an Islanders power play that ranks 22nd overall. This might sound strange as Palmieri has just one goal in over 80 minutes of power play time this season but again, it hasn’t been for lack of quality scoring chances. Palmieri ranks top-35 this season in power play shot attempts, attempts from the slot, deflections, and expected goals. Palmieri has spent time in a goal-line/net-front role on the Devils power play this season, the same type of role Anders Lee so brilliantly plays for the Islanders, so Barry Trotz has that option if he chooses to go that route with Palmieri.
A proven goal-scorer, solid underlying shooting metrics at even-strength and on the power play and effective in the neutral zone -- Palmieri checks a lot of boxes in terms of fit in terms of what the Islanders need and how they play.
Lamoriello drafted Zajac 20th overall back in 2004 and spoke highly of him Wednesday.
“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,” said Lamoriello. “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."
Zajac should be able to do just about anything the Isles ask him to. The versatile, 35-year-old can play all situations and is averaging just over half a point per game this season. Zajac waived his no-move clause to join the Islanders and had this to say about joining his new team: "Let me just start off by saying I'm extremely excited for this opportunity,” said Zajac. "At this point in my career and where I'm at, I wanted a chance to win, and I just believe this is a team that has all the aspects of a winning hockey team, and to be able to try and be a part of that and help them in any way, I think it was, for me, it was the right time.”
Like Palmieri, Zajac is also a responsible and effective neutral zone player, turning the puck over on just 5.7 per cent of his possessions -- 22nd-lowest among all forwards. Zajac makes a successful possession play in the neutral zone (ex. completed pass, controlled zone entry) over 80 per cent of the time, which ranks 14th among forwards. Both Palmieri and Zajac can be trusted to not only limit mistakes, but also make effective plays in the middle of the ice.
Zajac is also an effective forechecker, using his stick to force turnovers in the offensive zone. Zajac is averaging four blocked passes per game, which ranks 38th among forwards, just two spots behind new teammate J.G. Pageau. The Islanders rank top-10 in dump-in rate, which measures how often a team dumps the puck in. They also rank top-10 in how effectively they recover dump-ins and in generating scoring chances by forechecking. Zajac can play this type of game effectively.
In the face-off circle, Zajac has won more than half of his draws each year since 2007 though he is currently sitting at 49.9 per cent this season, having won 254 and lost 255 faceoffs. That said, Zajac has still been dominant in an area he will likely be used often -- winning defensive zone draws on his strong side, the right side of the ice. Zajac has won 59 per cent of the even-strength faceoffs he’s taken this season on his strong side in the defensive zone. Pageau takes a majority of these faceoffs for the Islanders so Zajac can either complement him if they play together on the third line, or provide an alternate option depending on the situation in the game.
Neither Palmieri nor Zajac can replace the style of game played by Lee or what he means to the team from a leadership standpoint as its captain. However, the Islanders are a team that succeeds, perhaps more than any other, because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Synergy. Each piece of the puzzle complements the others to form a cohesive unit, one that is tied for first in the East Division with the Washington Capitals.
Lamoriello said chemistry is extremely important to him. Well, Palmieri and Zajac look like terrific fits. Nobody would know that better than the Isles GM.