Welp local GM’s Tom Fitzgerald and Lou Lamoriello got the trade deadline off to a roaring start on a quiet Wednesday night with if not a total blockbuster, than certainly a meaningful trade for fans of both rival teams. I found out about this trade via a text from my friend who only said ‘Zajac wow’…I put two and two together figuring we didn’t have a game so this must be a trade, immediately went on Twitter and had a whoa moment when I saw the whole scope of the deal.
First of all let’s just boil the trade down for what it is, the two players we got back are nothing more than AHL filler to replace guys we’ll have to call up to replace Palmieri and Zajac in the lineup at the NHL level so they’re not even worth profiling. And the fourth round pick is basically a lottery ticket. It’s a conditional third if the Islanders make the Stanley Cup Finals, but Lou can defer giving it to us until 2023 so that’s not a big deal either. It’s basically two stalwarts, albeit rentals for a seemingly low first-rounder. I’d almost rather have traded them separately and gotten quantity back since we don’t know about what kind of quality a first-rounder in a weak draft even is but this deal does at least have the odd benefit of being like a bandaid ripoff. Having to deal with both of them leaving at once is probably better than one at a time, stretched out over days.
I’ve already said my goodbyes to Palm in a previous blog, with Travis it’s more of a pure emotional sadness than a tangible loss since he isn’t the player he once was and likely would have moved on one way or another after the year with this organization still in a neverending rebuild. That said, fifteen points in his last eighteen games as a Devil wasn’t exactly terrible by any means. You just knew he’d wind up on the Islanders if Travis was willing to waive his NTC anywhere both because they’re local and plus he was always a Lou guy – honest, smart, hard-working and knows how to play a 200-foot game. As a first-round selection way back in 2004, Zajac was the longest-tenured Devil, and the only one left who has any frame of reference to the days when the Devils were actually consistently good.
Even as a 21-year old rookie in 2006, Zajac never seemed out of place in the NHL and put up a very respectable 17 goals and 42 points in 80 games during his rookie campaign, but it was his third and fourth seasons where he really blossomed – and in many ways peaked on the PZL line with fellow linemates Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner. For that two-year stretch they were the team’s top line and Zajac looked like an elite player in the making with back-to-back sixty plus point seasons. Incidentally they were also his only two years with 20+ goals, but after Parise got hurt in ’10-11 and Langenbrunner’s game declined, Zajac himself eventually settled into the role of top middle six center, who won faceoffs and took all the top defensive responsibilities in terms of facing other teams’ best lines and piling up countless PK minutes but generally topped out with point totals in the high 40’s.
Zajac actually has one claim to Devils fame that’s easily forgotten, replacing Ken Daneyko as the iron man for the longest consecutive games played streak in franchise history from his first season through the end of 2011, playing over 400 games in a row. Ironically the streak ended when Zajac injured his achilles in an offseason workout before the 2011-12 season, and he only played 15 games at the end of the regular season when the Devils bounced back from a poor year to return to the playoffs. Zajac was his usual dependable self in the postseason though, putting up 14 points in 24 games on the Devils’ unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Finals including arguably the biggest goal of the postseason – because without his memorable winner in Game 6 of the first round against the Panthers, there is no Adam Henrique series winner against Florida or against the Rangers later on.
If memes were a thing back then (maybe they were) Zajac’s running man celebration after the goal would have been one of them. I was at the arena that day and just felt relief that the Devils were not going to be eliminated at home the way they were for three straight years from 2008-2010. Little did I know what was to come after that. Unfortunately for us and for Travis, that playoff run would be his high point on the ice before and after. Still, he represented the franchise well and with high class for years after, never complaining as things went to crap around him and wanting to be a part of this team turning it around. It just wasn’t to be however.
I’d like to root for him – and Andy Greene – to win with the Islanders but it’s just too difficult, especially with the Devils south connection being harder to stomach now. I now have a frame of reference to know what Derek was dealing with when the Lightning started becoming a haven for ex-Rangers. Not to mention having the Islanders’ first and second rounders gives us a tangible reason to root against it happening. I get both Zajac and Kyle Palmieri deserved a classy sendoff but I couldn’t help but cringe the first time I saw this Fitz quote:
I get you don’t ever want to admit you’re rooting for the pick to be as low as possible and want to wish two class individuals well, but I never recall hearing another GM so overtly rooting against his own interests in the name of being magnanimous, no matter what player left any franchise. Especially when dealing with a quasi-rival. I was a little queasy about that until I was reminded that Fitz may in fact only BE the GM the rest of this year anyway, due to the weird Elliote Friedman rumor from earlier in the season that while Fitz is signed for multiple years, the contract only specifies him as being the GM this season. So maybe I can’t begrudge him too much if he doesn’t actually care where the pick lands lol, if he’s auditioning for a GM spot elsewhere or is transitioning into another role here under a different team president.
Sorry Fitz, sorry Travis but I’d rather have a first-rounder in the teens than see you and your buddies on Long Island win. Especially since that’s all this franchise is about, future planning at a time where things couldn’t possibly be worse on the ice, losing our fourth game of the season last night to a team with only nine wins all year. Pardon me if I’m not jumping for joy that we inevitably lose two of our key figures to a rival team for one late first-round pick in a crapshoot of a draft and a bunch of filler. I suppose it’s fine valuewise, depending on your philosophy – would you rather have one first, or a 2nd + pick/prospect for Palm in one deal and a 2nd or 3rd for Zajac in another? This year’s draft I might almost rather have the multiple swings at bat over a first with questionable value, but most would disagree. Either way I’m not gonna begrudge the deal but I’m in no mood to celebrate it either.