‘A team that just does things the right way’: Islanders’ cultural revolution in full swing after Palmieri, Zajac trade

Islanders bench
The Islanders’ acquisition of Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac further cements their place as contenders for the Stanley Cup in 2021.
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but since when were the New York Islanders a legitimate destination for top trade targets or free agents?

For the better part of the last 25 years, heading to the Islanders was like being banished to the harshest corners of hockey Siberia — a team with little organizational competence and no hopes of competing for a Stanley Cup.

But as has been discussed ad nauseam since their arrivals, Hall-of-Fame president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and future Hall-of-Famer in head coach Barry Trotz have completely revitalized the franchise over the last three years, taking them from the basement of the Eastern Conference to the very top of it, having come two wins away from competing in the Stanley Cup Final last season. 

That’s what organization and structure will do. The Islanders don’t boast the kind of show-stopping roster on paper that will have pundits tabbing them as contenders, but they know the man behind the bench and the one pulling the strings from the GM’s box makes them a threat.

With a month to go in the season, the Islanders are in the running for first place in the Eastern Division, considered by many to be the toughest in the game this year after the NHL redrew its divisions for another COVID-shortened season.

Lamoriello and Trotz maximize what they have — and they gave their team a massive shot in the arm on Wednesday night when they acquired Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the New Jersey Devils.

Kyle Palmieri (Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

“You always want to make your team better,” Lamoriello said. “You have to be careful of the decisions that you make… If there’s a chance to get better, you have to do that. 

“They’re both very important or else we not would have acquired them… We’re excited.”

Palmieri is a first-line-worthy winger who eases the blow of losing captain and leading goal-scorer Anders Lee for the season with a torn ACL. Zajac bolsters the Islanders’ depth, allowing Trotz to roll out a consistent and reliable third line that will also feature Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Oliver Wahlstrom. 

It’s a clear message that the Islanders are truly going for it — and the perception of joining this franchise isn’t met with the doom and gloom that it was once met with.

“I think at the point of my career and where I’m at, I want a chance to win and I believe this is a team that has all the aspects of a winning hockey team,” the 35-year-old Zajac, who waived his no-trade clause to join the Islanders, said. “To be able to try and be a part of that and help… I think it was just the right time.”

Travis Zajac (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

This isn’t just making a move to make sure the Islanders can sneak into the playoffs — like they’ve done in the past with Ryan Smyth or Thomas Vanek. This is a move to try and get them over the top and into the Stanley Cup Final. 

That’s a pretty foreign concept for a majority of a fan base that has no recollection or wasn’t around for the Islanders’ dynastic run of four-straight Stanley Cups from 1980-1983.

“When I heard that the Islanders could be an option, I couldn’t have been more excited,” Palmieri said. “As the days wore on here, there was a little bit of anxiety in terms of waiting for that call. I got that call [Wednesday night] and it was really difficult to contain the excitement of joining this team.

“I think the opportunity to go and be a part of a team that has a chance to do something special is something every player wants and that’s all you can ask for.”

“It’s a bolt of energy for sure,” Zajac added. “You’re excited to come in this situation and coming to a team that just does things the right way. They know how to win. They’re tough to play against, they’re consistent. It’s exciting to be a part of that group.”

That collective “ouch” you’re hearing is from Islanders fans pinching themselves.