Devils' Kyle Palmieri earning a big payday back home

Kyle Palmieri has a team-leading 20 goals in 51 games. James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO -- Ray Shero's first trade as general manager of the New Jersey Devils set the tone for the kind of season his team is having.

At the draft in June, Shero acquired Kyle Palmieri from the Anaheim Ducks for second- and third-round picks.

Shero had to spend two assets but it's already proved well worth it as Palmieri's 20 goals lead the team through Thursday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"It's worked out well," Shero said Wednesday from his New Jersey office. "That trade was also a product of the fact that the Ducks have drafted so well; you just can't keep everybody."

Not in a salary-cap system, you can't. Palmieri is a restricted free agent on July 1 and, a year out, Ducks GM Bob Murray made the determination that the raise the right winger would likely warrant would be difficult to fit into their structure.

Of course, Shero had some inside intel, too: his new head coach, John Hynes, coached Palmieri back with the under-18 U.S. national team development program in 2008.

"As a player, he was a real strong competitor, even when he was 17 or 18 years old in the U.S. program," Hynes said Thursday. "Then I coached against him when he was in Syracuse in the American League before he got up to the NHL. It was always kind of what you see from him this year, he's a strong competitor, he can skate well, he's a goal scorer, but he's a goal scorer who works for his chances and that was something we felt we wanted in our lineup and the type of team we wanted to be.

"So, I think it was a combination of the human being, who he is, and the type of player that he is and he's shown that this year," Hynes said in summing up what he shared with Shero before the trade.

Palmieri, who turned 25 on Monday, was thrilled with the trade, which brought him back home.

"It's been great, obviously coming back home," the native of Montville, New Jersey, said Thursday morning at Air Canada Centre.

"I played for the Devils youth hockey program. We played out of the Devils practice rink. It's crazy how it comes full circle now. It's been awesome now."

As far as transitions go, it couldn't get any smoother, both on and off the ice.

"I just wanted to get to know the players and the system, and it's just been a natural fit for me as far as the system goes," said Palmieri, who has enjoyed being reunited with Hynes. "It made that transition so much easier. Obviously, I've been getting a lot of ice time, it's been a great fit for me so far."

The Devils have been able to offer what the Ducks really didn't: a permanent top-six role. He had the occasional audition with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in Anaheim but largely bounced all over that deep lineup, although still managing to produce back-to-back 14-goal seasons. After being drafted 26th overall in 2009 by the Ducks, there were a few roadblocks at his natural position of right wing when he made the big club.

"It's tough to fit in and try and steal a job when it's Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne ahead of you on the depth chart," said Palmieri, chuckling. "But I learned to play a couple of different styles. I had some time with Getzlaf and Perry but also spent time on the fourth line, too. Overall, I can look back on my years in Anaheim and I learned a lot as a player. It's all good memories from there. Bob [Murray] gave me a nice sendoff and wished me luck. There were no hard feelings. I was just excited for the opportunity."

On pace for a 32-goal season, he's certainly made the most of it so far.

"You always knew he could score -- displayed a great shot and touch at the USA program and in the AHL," an Eastern Conference hockey executive said Thursday via text message. "With scorers, sometimes it just clicks and they gain their confidence. He got the [time on the ice] and opportunity in [New Jersey], he has become the player scouts envisioned when he was drafted in the first round."

Added a Western Conference scout via text Thursday of the 5-11, 195-pound Palmieri: "Love him. Willing to go in traffic to score goals. Good shot and he competes. I am just a little worried after he signs his big contract because he's not a big guy and can be injury-prone. But I could be wrong on that."

Yes, a raise is indeed coming from the $1.466 million Palmieri is making this season, especially since he's got salary arbitration rights this summer. His agent, veteran Steve Bartlett, said Wednesday that there's no hurry at this point given that he's restricted free agent, he's not going anywhere, they'll let things play out and see where it goes.

That's fine with Palmieri.

"If it takes until the end of the year, it takes until the end of the year," Palmieri said. "I don't need any distractions, our team is in the playoff hunt, and that's the focus."

Indeed, the Devils continue to defy the preseason prognostications.

"Everyone saw the predictions in training camp, people picking us for last or second-last in the league," Palmieri said. "We just needed to get off to a good start and play a system that fits our roster. We just try to outcompete teams. In the NHL, anyone can beat anyone. We're confident no matter who we're playing. A team with confidence with a bit of a chip on their shoulder is a tough team to play against."