The past year could end up being one of the very best of Kyle Palmieri’s career.
Since being acquired by the Devils from the Ducks, Palmieri, 25, has had the breakout that Anaheim had been waiting for, potting 30 goals and 57 points in 82 games this past season in New Jersey. Palmieri parlayed his huge year into a five-year, $23.25-million contract in early July, and now he’s turned his biggest season into a chance to play alongside the best American players at the World Cup.
Palmieri was officially announced as the replacement for injured Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan, who underwent surgery in late-June to repair a labral tear in his right hip.
“Kyle brings an all-around game that we’re confident will fit nicely with the framework we’re looking to build,” said Team USA GM Dean Lombardi in a release. “He’s coming off an outstanding year in New Jersey and will play an important role with our team.”
That Palmieri made the team isn’t exactly shocking, but it may be somewhat unexpected. This is the second-straight time the team has passed on Phil Kessel and Kyle Okposo, who are the sixth- and seventh-highest scoring American-born skaters in the league over the past two seasons.
It’s surprising that Lombardi has chosen to pass on Kessel once again given the 28-year-old winger is coming off of an outstanding post-season in which he won the Stanley Cup — and nearly the Conn Smythe Trophy — with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kessel scored 26 goals and 59 points in 2015-16, adding another 10 goals and 22 points in 24 playoff games. Over the past two campaigns, Kessel’s 51 goals and 120 points are the sixth-most of American skaters.
Much of the same goes for Okposo, although he can bring the physical aspect that will be lost with Callahan. Okposo, 28, netted 22 goals and 64 points this past season before inking seven-year, $42-million deal with the Buffalo Sabres. He has 40 goals and 115 points over the past two campaigns.
Both are right wingers, too, which would have been a positional fit for the American squad. Callahan’s absence left Team USA in need of a winger, and Callahan naturally plays on the right side. That said, so does Palmieri.
One has to wonder how much impact Kessel’s hand injury, and subsequent off-season surgery, had to do with him being passed over once again, though. Kessel’s supposed to be good to go for the beginning of the season, but was recently sporting a cast on his hand during his day with the Stanley Cup.
However, that Lombardi cited Palmieri’s “all-around game” likely has a lot to do with the American squad’s choice of replacement.
Over the past two seasons, Palmieri has started nearly 35 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone and has faced only 51.7 shot attempts against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time. Both Kessel and Okposo took far more offensive zone starts, but faced more shot attempts against by a wide margin. Kessel started only 28.6 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone, but saw 59.8 attempts against per 60. Okposo fared better, starting 26.8 percent of his shifts in his own end and seeing 54.6 attempts against per 60.
As far as penalty killing goes, it doesn’t seem as though it could have had a significant impact on the choice. Palmieri averaged the “highest” shorthanded ice time with 22 seconds per game over the past two campaigns, with Kessel and Okposo averaging less than five seconds apiece.
Lombardi wanted to assemble a team that could beat Canada at the World Cup, and it appears he feels his best bet is to keep bringing well-rounded players into the fold. Palmieri checks that box for Lombardi, and that’s why the Devils winger will be taking Callahan’s place come mid-September.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.