With yesterday’s news that Kyle Palmieri was being scratched for precautionary reasons a clear signal that a trade is the next step for player and team, today’s as good a time as any for the inevitable Devils deadline day preview. So far pre-deadline has been unusually quiet around the NHL – especially given the quarantine time once you trade for a player, but I’m sure moves will still be made in the next week up until next Monday’s deadline. Before talking about our new normal of being sellers, first a few words on Palmieri, whose Devils career can only be described as an unqualified success from an individual standpoint.
In a lot of ways I’m sad about Palmieri being traded over more than just the fact we’ll be hard pressed to replace his production as a Devil. For starters, he was one of the few Jersey-born hockey players who played a tangible role for Jersey’s hockey team. Jim Dowd was a lifetime ago and – other than one shining moment in 1995 against Detroit in the SCF – really didn’t have that much of an impact as a Devil overall. For a fanbase and a state that has a perennial inferiority complex in comparison with New York, Palmieri was a point of pride for Devils fans during some dark years for the franchise as a whole, in part because of his upbringing and personality along with his production as a Devil.
Palmieri’s imminent trade is also emotional from the standpoint that he was the first big move in the post-Lou Lamoriello era of Devils hockey. Yeah I know Lou was still technically team president then, but it was Ray Shero who moved 2nd and 3rd rounders (initially acquired – ironically enough – in a deadline sale of Jaromir Jagr) to get an unheralded winger from Anaheim. Palmieri had scored 14 goals in 57 games during his last season in Anaheim, stuck in a bottom six role on a good team. Maybe the only person who knew what kind of player Palmieri could be was his former GM Bob Murray, who made an unusually revealing admission after dealing K-Palm:
For us Palmieri – even more than #6OA pick Pavel Zacha – was the first on-ice presence of the new-era Devils and he more than did his part over the next five seasons, scoring 132 goals in five seasons including 30 in his first season as a Devil. As a consistent 50-55 point, 25+ goal player per full season, K-Palm was consistent offense on a team otherwise lacking it, outside of Taylor Hall’s MVP year. He never embarrassed the franchise on or off-ice and frankly, part of my bitterness towards the team this season is over the fact they never really seemed interested in making an honest effort to re-sign K-Palm.
I get all the arguments against re-signing him, he’s 30 now and no doubt wants a longer-term deal than the Devils are willing to commit plus he’s also having a bit of a down year this season (who isn’t on this roster? We all know the big reason why, i.e. the COVID ‘break’ that torpedoed whatever chance we had of an enjoyable season this year). But when you’re leaking talent faster than you’re replenishing it and you don’t have much of a veteran presence as it is on the roster, I don’t really see a big downside to re-upping him at this point. Even if the back end of his deal craters a la Mike Cammalleri, so what? It’s not like we’re spending up to the cap regardless and have other contracts coming off the books – which I’m gonna get to at the tail end of this blog.
Obviously Tom Fitzgerald has made his choice, Kyle and his agent have also made theirs to test FA over taking a short-term offer so we have to live with it and hope the GM can manage to replace the scoring K-Palm’s given us in another 2-3 years after flipping him for more futures, if that. I certainly wish him luck wherever he goes this Spring, maybe not so much after depending on where he signs (hah!). K-Palm isn’t the only expiring contract that could be dealt but he’s by far the biggest name among them, with apologies to franchise stalwart Travis Zajac, who I’m not even sure gets dealt this year at the deadline. He did use his NTC to nix a deal last year after all, but maybe his attitude toward waiving is different on an expiring contract with the team clearly out of the mix. Travis being dealt would also be emotional for me, albeit understandable at this point. There’s been no effort to re-sign Travis either, nor did I expect any at his advanced age with so much of the future tied up in our two #1 OA centers, Travis would probably have a more reduced role on this team assuming Nico Hischier is healthy in 2021-22.
Also on expiring contracts are defensemen Dmitry Kulikov, Ryan Murray and Sami Vatanen. I doubt a struggling Vatanen gets us the haul he did last year when we managed to pry a 2nd rounder and Janne Kuokkanen from the Hurricanes. This year he probably will fetch a mid-round pick at best. Murray’s play has been up and down this year, it’s hard to say what his value will be, especially considering we only acquired him for a 5th rounder this offseason to begin with. Maybe with salary less of an issue closer to the deadline that alone lifts his value, and defensive defensemen do tend to bring back a pretty penny at the deadline…which brings me to Kulikov who may well return the most (other than Palmieri, probably) in a trade. Kulikov’s numbers certainly don’t jump off the page – just two assists in 35 games – but he’s been solid defensively for the most part, and his advanced numbers if you value them seem to be in his favor. He’s another guy I’d prefer to re-sign given our lack of depth on defense, but there’s seemingly been no movement on that end either and the organization continues to be fine with a ‘process’ managing style.
As many as all five could be moved although I shudder to think of the state of our D if they are – Will Butcher, Matt Tennyson and random prospect A as their replacements would be yuck-worthy, I doubt anyone else will be dealt in the next week unless some hockey trade happens or a Blake Coleman-type deal falls out of the sky. We do have to keep enough guys signed on the roster to be eligible for the expansion draft, among other concerns. Nikita Gusev just recently passed through waivers unclaimed so that’s a pretty good indicator of his value on an expiring $4.5 million deal. Our only other FA’s are our backup goalies.
I’m not expecting anything game-changing in return for Palmieri, Kulikov or anyone else but this team could definitely look very different down the stretch of the season. Ironically, in what’s now likely to be one of Palm’s last appearances in front of the media as a member of the Devils he talked about the kid who’s likely to be his replacement in the lineup – prospect winger Tyce Thompson – a 2019 4th rounder recently signed to an ELC out of Providence College. Our stated plan for Thompson is to have him watch a few games, get a couple of practices in then jump in the lineup. That screams of ‘we’ll see you after Palm leaves at the deadline kid’. As much as I roll my eyes at the all kids lineup, it will be interesting to see a few new faces down the stretch.