Things looked grim for the New Jersey Devils in 2015. After clinging to the fringes of relevance the couple seasons following their 2012 Cup Final run, the team had finally bottomed out in 2014-15. After years of free agent departures, stopgap solutions, and neglect of the prospect pipeline, the end of an era in Devils hockey had been reached. The head coach was shown the door halfway through the season, the legendary GM was kicked upstairs, and the franchise felt adrift with a daunting task ahead of it. There was a lot of work to be done to get the franchise back to being a factor in the playoff race, let alone a legitimate contender again.
Now, with the team just starting to emerge from that rebuild, there is one transaction that I think one can point to where the trajectory of the organization started to trend upward again. I think that transaction was the Kyle Palmieri trade at the NHL Draft in June of 2015.
The Devils were a team in decline for several years up to that point. They had their two biggest stars, Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuck, leave in back to back summers, each in uniquely gut-wrenching fashion. They had a prospect pipeline that was paper thin and only so-so at the top, a result of years of trading away picks to help teams in the hunt as well as generally poor player evaluation with the picks they did have. Years of a win-now philosophy, ill-fated contracts, and the loss of various players to free agency and “retirement” finally had come home to roost.
That bottoming-out of the team in 2015 meant Devils fans had to adjust to something completely foreign to the organization up to that point: a rebuild. The team would have the 6th overall pick in a draft where the consensus top-two tiers were really only five players deep and they would have to figure out how to improve the team without the benefit of much in the way of prospects to start with. They would select Pavel Zacha with that 6th pick, a selection that certainly engenders some debate in these parts, but it was perhaps a start. Then, at the end of that first round when everyone figure the Devils were done for the night, word came through that the team had traded two picks, a 2015 second and a 2016 third, for Anaheim Ducks winger Kyle Palmieri. It was unexpected, it was out of left field, and, most importantly, it was an extremely savvy move that netted the Devils a solid building block for the present and future for not a whole lot in return.
Palmieri was seen in a lot of the hockey community as a guy who just needed more opportunity, as circumstances in Anaheim prevented him from ever seeing much more than third-line minutes. His rate stats all pointed to a player who was worthy of a bigger role, and Ray Shero made that bet and chose to take advantage of a cap-strapped Ducks team to land himself a bargain. The deal was certainly well-liked at the time, but in retrospect, it has become an absolute steal. If the rebuild we are currently in is ultimately considered a success, this is the point where it think one will be able to say the tide started to turn for New Jersey.
Since his arrival in New Jersey, Palmieri has done nothing but produce. He has averaged an 82-game pace of 30 goals and 56 points since his arrival in Newark on a team that had struggled tremendously to score in the years prior. His 30-goal, 57-point campaign in 2015-16 helped lead a team that was putrid on paper to a surprisingly competitive season. One can argue whether that was really helpful for a team in a major rebuild, but the point was that the Devils had a hugely important piece on their roster who had been acquired for relative peanuts and it was a harbinger of the types of trades Shero would be making to try to better his team.
Obviously, these days in New Jersey, the big stories are the seasons of Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier (rightfully so) at the head of a resurgent Devils team. But somewhat under the radar, Kyle Palmieri is a major driver of this team’s success in his own right. He’d be on pace for a career-best 34-goal, 60-point season without his early-season injuries and has had a big month of March when the Devils have absolutely needed it. Pure goal-scorers are something the Devils continue to lack a lot of the time, but Palmieri is a big time talent on that front. Short of having one of the league’s truly elite players, it’s tough to find guys who can put the puck in the net like the man from Montvale can.
Palmieri is a good enough scorer that he has been able to (obviously along with Hall) make a power play that struggles to even get set up in the zone a lot of the time into a unit with a solid conversion rate. Palmieri is consistently among the top Devils in goals/60 with the extra attacker since his arrival, but this season he has been on another level as a producer on the power play where his 3.9 goals/60 put him at 8th in the entire league among players with at least 50 5v4 minutes. His synergy with Hall on the top unit has helped power an otherwise haphazard power play to having the 11th-best conversion rate in the NHL.
To go along with the way he produces, Palmieri is a player who is easy to root for as well. He comes off as a smart player and a capable leader for this team and his intensity is often on display on the ice, where he can get under his opponents’ skin from time to time. He’s also a hometown guy, being raised in North Jersey, and seems to really connect with fans. These things on their own do not make a player, but they are certainly great things for a player to have on top of producing tangible results on the ice. Palmieri is a great player, but he’s also a fun guy to cheer for as well, which is nice to have when you’re trying to reinvigorate a fanbase.
So, when considering the players most important to this team right now, be sure not to leave out Palmeiri. And when you juxtapose this point against the fact that he was acquired from Anaheim for not much more than a song (hell, the Devils almost gave up as much for Mirco Mueller), you can see why I consider him the real kickoff point of the rebuild the Devils are currently engaged in (and trying to emerge from). Without his contributions, it’s hard to say where the Devils would be right now, but if it were possible to bet on such things, I’d say “quite a bit lower in the standings.” So tip your cap to Montvale Native Kyle Palmieri, the man who launched the rebuild in New Jersey.