A look at the roles the two newcomers are expected to play on a competitive Islanders team.
They were one of the favorites to acquire Palmieri, especially after captain Anders Lee was ruled out for the season with an ACL injury. Palmieri is a similar player to Lee: they’re both left wingers and are praised for their scoring ability.
The acquisition of Zajac, however, came as a surprise.That’s not to say Zajac won’t be impactful for the Islanders. He’s an experienced and incredibly versatile player who can do it all.
He’s going to be a difference-maker in one way or another for this stacked Islanders team.
The Islanders are in a great but peculiar spot, so looking at how they intend to use Palmieri and Zajac in the lineup should be interesting. Let’s dive right into it.
The Islanders have emerged as one of the best defensive teams in the league, but do have some pop in their forward group.
Mathew Barzal is one of the best young centers in the NHL and they’ve gotten contributions from the top line all the way down to the “Identity Line” that isn’t known for scoring.
This team is always looking for goals, something that was exacerbated once Lee went down. Enter Palmieri.
Many have referred to Palmieri as one of the most underrated goal-scorers in hockey. The 30-year-old winger has recorded 20+ goals and 20+ assists in each of his last five seasons, ever since arriving in New Jersey.
He did get off to a slow start this season, but the Islanders got him at the perfect time, just as he was getting hot. Palmieri has eight goals and 17 points in 35 games. The Islanders need a finisher, and that’s exactly what Palmieri is.
Palmieri is also expected to improve a below-average power play. He has just one power play goal on the season, but 53 in his career.
Even if he isn’t scoring on the man-advantage, Palmieri is taking shots and getting open, something Islanders fans are already familiar with from watching their captain.
There’s no secret here: the Islanders wanted to bring in a guy whose playing style resembles that of Lee, and that’s basically what they’re getting in Palmieri.
Lee was arguably the team’s best forward when he went down, but the hope is that his absence won’t be noticed as much now that Palmieri is here.
Lou Lamiorello drafted Zajac back in 2004. He clearly thinks highly of him and believes the 15-year veteran brings a lot to the table.
Zajac, who played in his 1,000th career game this season, is capable of playing all three forward positions and can be used in all situations.
He was having a pretty good offensive season before coming over to New York: he had seven goals and 18 points in 34 games.
Zajac is capable of helping facilitate play in the offensive zone, but is also a good two-way forward who stands out as a forechecker.
He’s also solid in the faceoff circle, which is always a huge added bonus.
Unlike Palmieri, Zajac wasn’t brought over to be a high-scoring forward, but he brings a unique skill-set to the table, something every team wants their players to have.
Now that we know a little bit about these two players, how do they fit into the roster? Let’s begin by taking a look at how they’ve been used in their first two games as Islanders.
The newcomers have played both of these games on the third line. Palmieri has played on the left wing and Zajac on the right with Jean-Gabriel Pageau in the middle.
In their debuts, which came against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday, they were actually two of the team’s better players.
Here are their numbers:
Palmieri: 15:10 TOI, 45.83 CF% (7th on the team), 0.32 iXG (3rd), 1 block, 0.34 xGF, 0.26 xGA (2nd), 0 GF, 0 GA, 0.37 Game Score (6th), 0.47 defensive rating (4th), -0.33 offensive rating, and 0.23 individual rating.
Zajac: 12:34 TOI, 50 CF% (6th), 0.10 iXG, 0.42 xGF (t-6th), 0.21 xGA (1st), 0 GF, 0 GA, 0.33 Game Score (7th), 0.56 defensive rating (2nd), -0.28 offensive rating, and 0.06 individual rating.
The offensive numbers for both players weren’t particularly great in game one, but then again, most of the team didn’t look good in the offensive zone.
They both had strong defensive games, especially Zajac, who was first on the team in xGA and was one of the best defensive players for the Islanders.
Barry Trotz wants to use Palmieri on the power play, and that’s exactly what he did. Palmieri was sixth on the team in TOI on the man-advantage, fifth among forwards.
Trotz didn’t hesitate to turn to Zajac on the penalty kill: his 1:04 TOI while shorthanded was tied for seventh among Islanders players and tied for third among forwards.
Unfortunately, game two didn’t go as well for the team or the newbies.
Palmieri: 13:54 TOI, 40 CF%, 0.06 iXG (t-6th-worst), 1 block, 0.3 xGF (5th-worst), 0.52 xGA (6th-best), 0 GF, 1.08 GA, -0.67 Game Score (7th-worst), -0.32 defensive rating, -0.43 offensive rating, and 0.08 individual rating.
Zajac: 15:21 TOI, 40.74 CF%, 0.13 iXG (6th), 1 block, 0.27 xGF (4th-worst), 0.74 xGA (5th-worst), 0 GF, 1.08 GA, -0.98 Game Score (third-worst), -0.52 defensive rating, -0.56 offensive rating, and 0.12 individual rating.
The team, as a whole, didn’t look great against the New York Rangers on Friday, so it’s expected that Palmieri and Zajac wouldn’t have great numbers.
Palmieri’s defensive numbers aren’t exactly good but, as his xGA indicates, he was one of the better defensive players in this one. Neither one did much offensively, reflected in their very poor offensive stats and Game Scores.
Palmieri saw some time on the power play once again, but the Islanders didn’t get anything done on the man-advantage.
From the very short time Palmieri and Zajac have been on the Islanders, we’ve seen them take on important roles on the third line as well as on special teams, whether it be the power play or penalty kill.
The third line might seem to suit them, especially as they grow accustomed to their new roles and teammates, but the Islanders do have some decisions to make.
The young Oliver Wahlstrom is having somewhat of a breakout year and the only reason why it’s been so easy to put Palmieri and Zajac in the lineup over him is because he’s injured.
However, we do know that the injury isn’t serious or long-term, meaning he should make his return quite soon.
The easy decision, in the eyes of many, would be to bench Komarov once Wahlstrom returns. However, Komarov has looked good lately and has been a decent facilitator on that top line.
Trotz also has Kieffer Bellows and Michael Dal Colle to consider. So what should the Islanders do?
Komarov has been playing well and giving the younger guys like Bellows and Dal Colle playing time is always nice, but all three of Palmieri, Wahlstrom, and Zajac need to start.
Wahlstrom is on a roll and the Islanders didn’t trade for Palmieri and Zajac for them to ride the bench.
Once Wahlstrom is cleared to return, the right call would be to bench Komarov, promote Palmieri to the number one left wing position, put Wahlstrom back as the third line left winger, and keep Zajac as the third line right winger.
Developing the kids is almost always an organization’s priority, but the Islanders are in win-now mode and have to put out their best players night in and night out.
Watching Palmieri and Zajac get comfortable in this lineup is going to be fun, but this is only the beginning. Things are going to get even more interesting when the Islanders welcome Wahlstrom back.
All in all, this was a great trade for the Islanders, who received two solid players while not giving up too much in return.
Both Palmieri and Zajac are going to be impactful in their own ways and make one of the strongest teams in the league that much better.