When your team trades away a player you love

Photo by @njdlove (Sarra) via Twitter.

I’ll be honest. As a fan of the Hudson rival Rangers, I have it better. These days are tough ones for Devils fans, who have seen their once proud team fall on hard times.

It isn’t easy to miss the playoffs and see popular players get moved before the NHL Trade Deadline. For the Devils, last year it was captain Andy Greene who traded in the red and black for dark navy blue and orange of the rival Islanders. The gritty defenseman nearly helped them advance to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup appearance since I was not even eight.

When news came down last night about another trade between the Devils and Islanders, it wasn’t surprising. Kyle Palmieri was expected to be dealt after sitting out the last two games as precaution. Given the nature of the relationship between former Devils architect Lou Lamoriello and Tom Fitzgerald, you knew Palmieri to the Islanders made sense once they lost captain Anders Lee for the season. It left a hole. One Palmieri can fill.

What we didn’t know is that Fitzgerald would get the popular career Devil Travis Zajac to wave his no-movement clause to trade in the Jersey Shore for the Long Island Sound. Hasan covered it well last night. It was easy for the well respected veteran two-way pivot to accept a trade to the Islanders. He is reunited with Lamoriello and teammate Greene, who fits the Barry Trotz defensive system like a glove. That Palmieri is also going made it easier.

Zajac was so excited about the move that he feels the new team he’s joining capable of winning a Stanley Cup. He wants to win. Zajac came close once in the 2012 NHL Playoffs when he helped lead the Devils to a Stanley Cup Final after defeating the Rangers in the Conference Final. Ultimately, they came up short against the Kings.

There haven’t been many opportunities since that run. With Zajac turning unrestricted this summer, it’s another chance to chase a Cup. He joins a hardworking team that plays the way most old Lamoriello clubs have. With Trotz emphasizing the tight checking system and forecheck that makes life difficult on opponents, it’s a good fit. Zajac will bring the experience and grit while Palmieri should improve the Islanders offensively. He’s a good power play guy. Something they can use due to his big shot.

The truth is it doesn’t make this trade any easier for New Jersey fans to take. I know people who love their Devils and were heartbroken over the Zajac part of the deal. As I recently mentioned, he was a career Devil who played in 1,024 games all in the Garden State. His 202 goals and 348 assists that totaled 550 points are good numbers for a former first round pick in ’04 selected 20th overall. He’s played well lately going 3-1-4 in the last four games. On a low scoring team, the 35-year old center had 18 points (7-11-18). Now, he moves to the Islanders where he’ll center Josh Bailey and Palmieri tonight.

When it comes to the trade deadline, there is heartbreak and emotion for fans who grow attached to players. Even when the Rangers dealt former captain Ryan Callahan to the Lightning for Martin St. Louis, I was crushed. The man known as Captain Cally was one of my favorite Rangers due to how hard he played. He was a classic overachiever who would sacrifice his body for team success. The blocked shot on a heavy Zdeno Chara shot that broke his arm to preserve a home win over the Bruins remains a memorable image.

Once I got over the loss of Callahan and embraced St. Louis, it became easier. The Rangers had a great run in 2014. They made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to those same annoying Kings. The team rallied around the death of St. Louis’ mother France to storm back and stun the Penguins, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in franchise history. They had St. Louis for two Springs and nearly reached consecutive Finals.

There’s a big difference here for the Devils, who are in full rebuild mode. In moving Palmieri and Zajac while generously picking up half their remaining salaries to help the Islanders, they picked up a 2021 first round pick and conditional third along with two AHL players. Not the best return for a top six player and proven veteran center who can play in any situation while taking key face-offs. It’s a buyers market.

It was perplexing to read the quote from Fitzgerald indicating he was rooting for those former players to win a Cup with a rival. Maybe the Islanders aren’t the Rangers or Flyers. But they’ve taken the Devils’ lunch money in most recent times. That shouldn’t sit well with their fans. Especially with former GM Lamoriello there with Greene and now Palmieri and Zajac. Are the Islanders planning to raid the Devils some more in the future and rename themselves the New York Devils?

Fans love players. Especially ones who are honest working like Zajac, who went from centering the top scoring line of ZZ Pop featuring Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner to becoming a steady checking pivot who is reliable on key draws and kills penalties. He also played power play for the Devils. He is a smart center who knows where to go on the ice.

It’s no wonder Twitter friend Sarra (njdlove), who is celebrating a birthday today was so upset over the trade last night. I don’t blame her. These trades are hard on loyal fans who support these players and their team religiously. She loved ZZ Pop. Zajac was the last link to the scoring line. He was also along with Palmieri players fans identified with.

I don’t know how they feel about their former favorite players chasing a championship for the Islanders. I happen to agree with Hasan. You don’t root for the first round pick to turn into a number 32. At least it’s not something I’d say publicly. While it’s classy to want the former players to succeed, Fitzgerald came across as a guy who’s still playing for the other team. He was an Islander. That was mind-numbing.

The Devils are likely to still be busy. Perhaps Ryan Murray goes or Dmitry Kulikov. Each are supporting defensemen who can help teams. Last year, Sami Vatanen returned a conditional third round pick (Nico Daws) and Janne Kuokkanen. We’ll see if anyone else leaves Newark.

For the fans, it’s not easy. These are the emotions most of us have when a big trade goes down involving players we love. Alexei Kovalev was my favorite player. When he was dealt to the Pens for Petr Nedved, it was emotional. Ditto for all-time franchise great Brian Leetch.

That’s what makes the trade deadline hard. We all have been victimized by it. Unless you’re a Vegas fan. Talk about spoiled. One day, even they’ll experience the heartache of losing a favorite player.

It isn’t fun. It’s always going to be the fans who are affected most.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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