The next NHL chapters for Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac are very much uncertain, with both headed toward unrestricted free agency and the Islanders potentially being just a brief stop in their careers.
But Thursday night at Nassau Coliseum gave the veteran forwards a bit of closure as they faced their former team, the Devils, for the first time since being traded on April 7. The playoff-bound Islanders also host the Devils on Saturday night in, quite possibly, the final two regular-season games at the Coliseum.
"They know that team across the way," coach Barry Trotz said before the game. "There’s not a lot of personal milestones I really care about. I always care about the collective milestones that you can do things together. But, there’s certain things. When you look at a guy who’s played 1,000 games with another team, I mean, I am human. I do sense there is a connection there. I think it’s important for Travis and Palms as an end-of-an-era type of thing, sort of close the book on it."
Zajac played 1,024 games with the Devils after they selected him 20th overall in 2004. Palmieri, originally from Smithtown, played five-plus seasons for the Devils after growing up in Bergen County, New Jersey.
Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello has not ruled out trying to re-sign either this offseason. But neither Palmieri nor Zajac have had a particularly productive start to what could be their brief runs with the Islanders.
Zajac, who has been used at all three forward spots, had one goal and one assist in his first 11 games with the Islanders while also being a healthy scratch three times.
Palmieri, used both as a left and right wing, had one goal and two assists in 14 games.
More was expected after the Islanders spent their first-round pick in this year’s draft, plus a conditional fourth-round pick in 2022 and two minor-leaguers to acquire them with captain and top-line left wing Anders Lee lost for the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Neither was made available to the media before Thursday’s game.
"As people, assimilating to fitting in and all that, they’ve done a great job," Trotz said. "You’d never know they ever played for another team. But, production-wise, let’s be honest, they haven’t quite done it. You look at Travis’ game the last two games in Buffalo. He played extremely well. I thought he might have been our best centerman. Kyle has gotten a number of chances, but there’s no production.
"They’re playing fine, it’s just there’s no production," Trotz added. "That will come. I’m hoping it comes when we need it most and that’s the playoffs."
The Islanders entered Thursday after back-to-back losses to the NHL-worst Sabres in Buffalo, 4-2 on Monday and a 4-3 shootout defeat on Tuesday. That ended almost any hope of the Islanders finishing first or second in the East Division and securing home-ice advantage for the first round.
But Palmieri and Zajac’s first game against the Devils did provide some motivation.
"I can only imagine there’s going to be emotions there," said Casey Cizikas, a lifelong Islander who is also an impending UFA. "You’re playing against guys that you played with for a while and you’ve got friendships that you build along the way. So, I think it’s going to be weird. But, at the same time, we’ve got a job to do and they’re professionals. They’ve been around for a long time."
"The nerves will be there for them," said defenseman Nick Leddy, acquired from Chicago in 2014. "But a lot of excitement."