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Can Kyle Palmieri Break Through to the League's Top Tier of Goal-Scorers This Season?

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Kyle Palmieri has been a consistent producer of goals since his arrival in New Jersey and finds himself in the upper reaches of NHL goal-scorers over the past three years. Can he turn in a career year and break into the elite level of scorers in the league?

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Since arriving in New Jersey in the summer of 2015, one of the more consistent bright spots for the Devils has been the man from Montvale, Kyle Palmieri, who has been a consistent goal-scoring force since putting on the red and black. Last season, I wrote that the trade for Palmieri represented the inflection point between the collapse of the old Devils and the rise of the current team. Now in his fourth year on the Devils (and in year three of a very reasonable five-year contract), he is well-established as one of their most important players and foundational pieces. Ray Shero made a bet on Kyle Palmieri a few years ago and it has paid substantial dividends.

While Palmieri is well-appreciated by Devils fans, he still flies under the radar in discussions about the the great goal-scorers in the league. He scored a number of enormous goals down the stretch for New Jersey last season and has been a model of consistency since landing in Newark, but he hasn’t really had that season where NHL fans and commentators at large are forced to sit up and take notice. He led the Devils in scoring and tied for the scoring lead in 2015-16 and 2016-17, respectively, and put up another solid (but injury-shortened) campaign last season, where he was on pace for his highest career goal and point outputs (projected to 82-games). Despite that, he still seems to fall into that underrated/sleeper category around the league.

Before he arrived on the Devils, he was a bit of an afterthought on a crowded Ducks roster. Many noted at the time that his per-60 rates were indicative of a player who could do much more than he was tasked with, but until you give a player that shot, it’s hard to know if they can really thrive in a bigger role. When Shero pried him away from the Ducks for a pair of second and third-round draft picks, the opportunity for a lot more minutes was presented to Palmieri and he seized it.

Since arriving on the Devils, Palmieri has had no issues producing, particularly when it comes to goal-scoring. Over his first three seasons in New Jersey, Palmieri is 30th in the NHL in total goals with 80 and 32nd in the league goals per game. His goal output is that of a borderline #1 scorer on a team, yet the recognition he gets doesn’t quite seem to line up with that. The players in his range for goal scoring in that 2015-18 stretch includes players like Logan Couture, Phil Kessel, Max Pacioretty, TJ Oshie, and others who are more renowned around the league. Obviously, between playing on some lousy Devils teams prior to last season and being a third-liner back in Anaheim, you can see how Palmieri hasn’t gathered a ton of attention. Even last season, where he was a solid player on a Devils team that a lot of eyes were focused on, he missed some time for injuries and Taylor Hall was rightfully a magnet for most of the attention.

So how can Palmieri break through and really become what you might call a “top-tier” scorer in this league? I think busting into the top-15 goal scorers in 2018-19 is something that would put the league on notice that Hall isn’t the only guy who can consistently bury the puck in the net in Newark. Why top-15? That would be the top half of the group you might consider #1 scorers on a team (going by the thought that 31 teams means 31 #1 scorers). Being in the upper half of that group puts you in the best of the best category.

So how far is Palmieri from that mark? The past three seasons he has been T-19, T-40, and T-68 in goals, respectively. Obviously, the 68th place finish is influenced by him missing a quarter of the season (his 32 goals-per-82 would put him on the edge of the top-25). Even the season he did crack the top-20 was a bit weird, as he tied with nine other players at that 30-goal mark. Those numbers kind of reflect why he hasn’t quite found that recognition, despite being the league’s 30th best scorer over the past three seasons: he’s been consistent in his output, but hasn’t had that elite-scoring season to turn heads.

So what does it take to break into that elite level of top-15 scorers in the league? Well, over the past few seasons, the threshold has been 32, 33, and 35 goals, respectively, to get into the top-15. Palmieri, to this point, topped out at 30-goals in the 2015-16 season, so he would need to take another step from that point. I would say the target Palmieri needs to hit would be a 35-goal campaign. Obviously, his blistering start over the first two games of this campaign is a good way to get off on the right foot, but it’s a long season, and scoring will typically ebb and flow for any individual player.

Based on his career to this point, though, is 35 goals attainable? He’s now a bit past what analysts have identified as peak scoring age in the NHL, but at 27 he’s still comfortably within what you’d call his prime, so a career year is still certainly within reach. One thing that can propel him toward that 35-goal mark is another huge season on the power play like the one he just had. Palmieri was sixth in the entire league in PPG/60 among players with 100 minutes on the man advantage. If he stays healthy and approaches that mark again this season, that will go a long way towards breaking into the elite tier.

At evens, Palmieri was just okay in overall scoring with 1.43 points/60, finishing eighth on the Devils. His goals/60 were still solid, though, as he pretty much matched his pace from his first two seasons in New Jersey (exceeded it slightly, even). There was also some evidence that Palmieri can take a step up from that level, as he turned in his highest rate of 5v5 shots/60 (and lowest shooting percentage) since joining the Devils. Additionally, Palmieri didn’t really get put together with Hall and Nico Hischier full-time until later in the season. Once he was there, though, his rates jumped considerably, both on-ice and individual (Hall and Hischier also saw solid gains after that line was united). His goals/60 with Hall and Hischier at 5v5 was 1.6 and 1.49, respectively (in over 300 minutes with each), which would both put him at second overall in the entire NHL last season for anyone with 100+ 5v5 minutes. Putting together his increased overall shot rate with the potential for increased time on the top line with Hall and Hischier, and Palmieri’s prospects for having a big year at evens look pretty decent as well.

So can Palmieri make that jump into the league’s elite group of goal scorers? With the benefit of a closer look at the stats, I think he has a real legitimate chance to break into that top-15 of leaguewide scorers. He was an absolute force on the power play last season and while his assist rates dipped at evens, he still produced goals well, despite a dip in shooting percentage, and was on another level in his time with Hall and Hischier on the top line. As with any big season, things would have to go right for Palmieri to get there (staying healthy, shooting luck, solid top line time), but he seems to have a very good shot as long as he avoids the injury bug. I suspect he won’t be able to maintain his current 164-goal pace, but I think 35 this season is a very attainable milestone for the Montvale native. If he can get to that mark or perhaps even beyond it, he should finally get some of the shine he deserves around the league.

Stats pulled from Natural Stat Trick and the indispensable Hockey Reference Play Index.