Forward Kyle Palmieri was one of the New York Islanders' key additions at the NHL trade deadline, ... [+] and now they'll face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL semifinals. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)Getty Images
General managers, usually in attempt to deflect criticism, typically like to say that it’s not as important to win the NHL trade deadline as it is to be the last team standing in June (or in 2021, July).
It’s impossible, though, to look at the upcoming NHL semifinal series between the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders and not draw a straight line between each of the past two trade deadlines and their postseason success.
In each case, general managers Julien BriseBois in Tampa and Lou Lamoriello on Long Island didn’t necessarily deal for the sexiest players available during the in-season trading frenzy. They paid a steep price, but did so after identifying players that would best fit a role their teams needed to play at a higher level.
And in both teams’ cases, the deadline-day acquisitions have played a major role in getting them to this rematch of the 2020 Eastern Conference finals.
Tampa Bay didn’t need to go out and get a big name — not with a core built around Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman (not to mention the best goaltender in the world, Andrei Vasilevskiy).
But BriseBois had two other things going for him in the winter of 2020: assets to trade and a mandate to value winning in the present a little more than worrying about the future.
Thus, BriseBois pulled the trigger on trades for Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman last year. Many scoffed at the price he paid for two grinders with little postseason track record. The Lightning traded one first-round pick to each the New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks along with a couple prospects. No one was laughing at BriseBois when Goodrow and Coleman were difference makers with their physicality and relentless forechecking on Tampa Bay’s way to its second Cup championship in franchise history.
So far defenseman David Savard has had a similar impact on the Lightning. He’s not flashy, just a straight-line defender with the ability to take the body and move the puck. It cost the Lightning yet another first-round pick — something Tampa Bay might regret in the second half of this decade, especially with Savard, Coleman and Goodrow coming up on unrestricted free agency — but the Lightning were willing to pay a price for something they desperately needed and Savard was the best option to fill their hole.
Winnipeg and Toronto, for couple examples, could’ve really used Savard and got outbid by Tampa Bay, if they were even seriously in the running. Those two teams have gone home early.
Lamoriello identified checking-line center as a position his team needed to fill, and he too paid a steep price — a first- and a second-round pick — to land Ottawa’s J-G Pageau. As opposed to BriseBois’ approach to contracts with Coleman and Goodrow, Lamoriello committed to Pageau long-term almost instantly with a six-year extension worth $5 million per season. At the time it seemed like a steep price to play both in the trade and the contract, but the three-time Cup-winning GM knew what his team would need to succeed in the playoffs and figured it was worth commiting long-term to a player a couple years shy of 30 who could be that shutdown center and also contribute offensively.
Pageau has been instrumental in the Islanders’ runs last year and this, including this year’s shutdown of Patrice Bergeron’s line during the series win over the Boston Bruins.
Pageau’s been joined on a line this postseason by Lamoriello’s most-recent forward acquisitions: Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac. Again, there was a first-round pick dealt. But again, the two grizzled veterans have each had signature moments through two rounds of this postseason and have helped the Islanders go deep in the playoffs despite the loss of captain Anders Lee.
There’s no telling if the Islanders will be able to retain Palmieri or Zajac, the latter of whom is 36 and might not be looking to play anywhere. But the future is beside the point. The Islanders haven’t won the Cup since 1983. They may have mortgaged some of their future without acquiring the biggest names or the best players available at their positions. But they identified the ones that would best suit their culture and group of players.
That’s what team-building looks like. BriseBois and Lamoriello have proven their ability to get the job done in the past and the present.
The chance to play for the Stanley Cup can very much be earned at the trade deadline, at least if the club’s GM is adept at exactly the right pieces and is willing to ante up for them.