Two years ago to the day today, I was sitting somewhere in the 230’s at Prudential Center watching the Devils take on the Ducks. Andy Greene excitingly sent the game to overtime with five minutes left, and I was still hurling curses and insults at Jagr for what I perceived as lone responsibility for Anaheim’s first goal when the puck dropped for the start of the four-on-four. When the Ducks mercifully scored and ended the game before they could add to what would become a record breaking 0-18 winless streak in the shootout for the Devils, the unmistakable roar of family and friends there to proudly support their loved one’s homecoming erupted from the other side of the Rock. New Jersey native Kyle Palmieri had won the game for Anaheim.
18 months earlier the Devils were playing in the Stanley Cup Finals, led by three 30 goal scorers: Captain Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, and David Clarkson. In the following year and a half, all three left New Jersey to return to their respective homes. Parise, just weeks after he blew a chance to give the Devils the lead in the third period of game one of the Stanley Cup Finals by sweeping a puck that was loose in the crease into the net with his hand (no one seems to remember that), fled to the Wild on matching contracts with fellow Minnesotan Ryan Suter. A year later, former agitator-turned-goal scorer David Clarkson took a lucrative deal with his hometown Maple Leafs. He has since been traded for Nathan Horton’s contract, so Toronto could pay someone who will never play another game instead of dealing with the disaster that became David Clarkson. He has scored 16 total goals since leaving the Devils. Less than a week after he left, in what was the most surprising of the three departures, Kovalchuk retired from the NHL to head home to Russia and join SKA St. Petersburgh. The core of a team that won an Eastern Conference Championship had all gone home, and left the Devils with a couple of overpaid Newfoundlanders and an aging foundation that had no hopes of competing in the modern NHL.
New Jersey is not exactly Minnesota, Toronto, or Russia in terms of professional hockey talent. Fifteen New Jerseyans have suited up in the NHL, and illustrating how much the sport has grown here in the last couple of decades, eight are currently active. A third van Riemsdyk has committed to the University of New Hampshire, after also following in his brothers’ footsteps starring at Christian Brothers Academy, and we have one defenseman and a forward in Plymouth, Michigan with the United States Hockey National Team Development Program. And while the Devils are as guilty as every NHL team for passing over Salem County native Johnny Gaudreau (he ended up going 104th overall in the 4th round to Calgary in 2011), Devils fans were left wondering when we were going to be compensated with hometown talent of our own.
Jim Dowd was the first New Jersey native to play for the Devils, drafted directly from Brick Township High School after leading the Dragons to a state championship in 1986. His number was still hanging at Ocean Ice Palace, not far off Route 70 in Brick, last time I was there. He won a cup on the 1995 team, scoring the game-winning goal in game two against Detroit, and came back to the Devils in 2006 after a long career with eight other NHL teams. He retired with the Flyers a season later. He was back in the news earlier this year as head coach of the Manasquan-Point Beach high schools hockey team, appearing in court after being accused of assaulting one of his players. A few years ago we just called that Shore Conference hockey. Rumor has it Dowd spends a lot of his time soliciting “partners” for his pyramid scheme these days. That is entirely not a joke.
When the Lamoriello Patriarchy fell this summer, Ray Shero acquired Kyle Palmieri for what felt like nothing; a 2nd round pick in 2015, and a 3rd round pick in 2016. For some of us, Palmieri’s role on the ice was the last thing we were thinking about when he came over. We had a young RFA forward from just up the street from the Prudential Center. Montvale was no longer just the last rest stop on the Garden State Parkway before crossing north into New York. It was the hometown of the Devil that instantly became one of the most valued players to our fan base. Eventually, we had to think about Palmieri the player. Palmieri the player had a career high of 14 goals, which he achieved last season with Anaheim in 57 games. Palmieri the player put up four points in three playoff rounds last year. Palmieri the player might not do a whole lot to help an untalented roster with more holes and question marks than any other team in the NHL. We knew that Palmieri was buried on an extremely talented roster in Anaheim, and we knew he was playing 4th line minutes in a diminished role. We did not know he would explode the way he has.
What the advanced metrics showed was that Palmieri was producing at a first line rate in goals per 60 minutes, his Corsi was above Anaheim’s average, and his production has skyrocketed with his second line role and power play minutes with the Devils this season. Palmieri is a goal away from matching last year’s career high. Through 32 games, he has 25 points, on pace for 64 this season, far above what most expected. While this number may drop as the Devils are finally beginning to perform like the helpless team they were predicted to be coming into the season, he has continued amassing points as the Devils have struggled.
While Palmieri is producing like a top six forward, what may be the biggest thing he adds is the bite he brings to a team that has been criminally soft for far too long. Too often have Devils goalies been poked and slashed at with little to no response from teammates, forwards have provided little in the way of fight in front of the net, and too few puck carriers have been hammered trying to cross New Jersey’s blue line. The passion has just not been there, and Palmieri brings some of that attitude back to a once great franchise. Kyle stands up for his teammates in all three zones, gets under opponents’ skin, and has a passion for the game and for winning, evident every time he puts the puck in the net.
Palmieri has gone from just another Rangers fan from Jersey (which, as Devils fans know, is inexcusable and unacceptable. If I am reaching any of you with this article, there are plenty of parts of New York that are pretty affordable) to a highly valuable asset for the Devils, both on and off the ice. What he brings to the rink and his roots in Jersey made him an immediate fan favorite, and his point production gives the Devils an offensive punch they desperately need. His status as a restricted free agent keeps him under New Jersey control for the foreseeable future. If the Devils eventually exceed expectations and make the playoffs this season, Palmieri will be playing a central role, and hopefully the hometown guy from Montvale becomes a major piece of the Devils’ core going forward.