Adam Pelech has a complicated story, one that includes many ups and downs. Life is a journey, not a destination, and Pelech’s journey from scapegoat to top-pairing, NHL defenseman has been a great one.
It all started in Toronto. Growing up in a hockey family, Pelech was groomed from a young age for his future. Hockey was not just a hobby for Pelech, but his destiny.
Brothers Matt and Michael Pelech play professional hockey and they witnessed the growth of Adam firsthand. The now-Islander has risen from the depths of junior hockey, mastering a classic, stay-at-home style that not many others can match.
“Adam doesn’t need to be mixing it up out there. In today’s game, if you can move well, have a good stick, skate, you can play for a long time,” Matt Pelech said. “Plus, he has that laid-back demeanor — he’s the same off the ice as he is on it. It’s such a good quality to have.”
Pelech started with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, playing behind Connor McDavid on a talented squad. He drew the eyes of the Islanders brass and was selected 65th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft. After being drafted, Pelech logged two more junior seasons, totaling 94 points.
Pelech excelled at the American Hockey League (AHL) level. In 14 AHL games in 2015, Pelech logged two shorthanded goals, two assists and a team-high plus nine. The Islanders valued the defenseman’s left-handed shot and poise presence from the point, promoting him to the National Hockey League (NHL). But when he arrived, he struggled, tallying only two points.
In April of that season, things got worse for Pelech. He missed time with an undisclosed injury, which was later diagnosed as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
The year following his diagnosis, he played half a season, managing a respectable 10 points in 44 contests. These two seasons were filled with growing pains and Pelech’s NHL future was in jeopardy.
Pelech frequently found himself on the wrong end of poor plays, many of which ended in his own net. These own-goals summarized his early tenure with the team, damaging his reputation..
“At 24-years-old, Adam Pelech should be at the point of his career where he’s taking a step forward,” said Eyes On Isles Islanders reporter Michael Anderson. “Instead, he’s taking a step back. Adam Pelech is the embodiment of what has been plaguing the New York Islanders defense for the last two seasons… Pelech has displayed poor situational awareness, bad positioning, poor gap control and no attention to detail. And that’s earned him a seat in the press box more than once this season.”
It hit rock bottom the following season. Pelech scored seven goals, but there was one problem. Four of them went into his own net.
Pelech found himself struggling on the ice, falling victim to Doug Weight’s poor system and a broken locker room caused by John Tavares’ ongoing contract negotiations. Weight put Pelech in a position to fail, and even though he did his best, at the time, it was not enough.
Here is the dilemma. Pelech was good, even when being put in precarious situations by his old head coach. He was stable and did exactly what was asked of him. But he made costly mistakes at important times and this defined his narrative.
Just like he has his whole life, Pelech rebounded from this adversity, chiseling away his poor reputation in the eyes of the fanbase. Weight was fired, Tavares left the team and in came Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello. With a new brass leading the team, Pelech thrived.
The unconfident defenseman quickly became the complete opposite. He emerged as one of Trotz’s most reliable weapons, matching up against top opposition every single night.
Sticking to theme, this was not a linear process. There were many struggles, including a few wake-up calls.
“I met with Adam a few times, and I sat him out a couple times. There was a consistency level I knew was there, he just had to find it,” Trotz said. “I think it was the second or third meeting, I expressed myself on what I truly believe that he can become. He’s worked on a couple things from a consistency aspect. More mentally than physically.
Pelech was benched early in the season following a series of poor plays. Whether it was not shooting the puck or committing a turnover, Pelech took some time to find his groove. Plus, Islanders defensive prospect Devon Toews was waiting in Bridgeport for his opportunity, breathing down Pelech’s neck and waiting to take his place.
But Pelech eventually found his partner in crime, Ryan Pulock, and that changed everything.
The pairing only allowed 22 goals in over 800 minutes of ice time together at even strength last season. When Pelech was paired with Pulock, the Islanders went from flukes to legitimate contenders, all because Pelech stepped up to the plate and took over a prominent role.
In January, Pelech played a total of 179:01. In February, Pelech played a total of 277:52. In March, Pelech played a total of 333:21. His improvement over the course of the season was crucial, allowing the Islanders to go from worst to first in goals allowed over the course of just one year.
“There’s firmness in his game,” Trotz said. “I think [Pelech] is finding himself as a National League player on a regular basis.”
Pelech contributed five goals and 21 points, along with a +22 that led the team. His 149 hits were a career high, a sign of increased physicality and defensive dominance. Most importantly, the intangibles Pelech provided gave the Islanders a dynamic, top-pair option that led his team to a playoff birth.
Let’s take a look back and analyze some of Pelech’s unheralded, under the radar plays that summarize his impact on the team.
Oct. 27, 2018 vs. Philadephia
Pelech establishes possession, corralling the puck before sending it across the blueline to Johnny Boychuk. After a Boychuk shot, the puck bounces back off the boards to Pelech, who fires a timely shot on net to put the Islanders up 1-0. Other defensemen would have hesitated or chose not to shoot, but not Pelech.
Nov. 8, 2018 vs. Tampa Bay
Mat Barzal wins the face-off and Pelech goes to work. He switches spots with Barzal, cycling down the left point and parking himself behind the net. Anton Stralman and Yanni Gourde fall to the ground, and Pelech combines with Josh Bailey for a beautiful tally. Pelech’s pinches have become a staple for the Islanders and they are one of the best facets of his game. When Pelech is dashing towards the crease, good things are about to happen.
Jan. 20, 2019 vs. Anaheim
Pulock is known for his rocket of a slap-shot, but Pelech has a cannon of his own. With the puck about to leave the zone, Pelech showed off his skills, putting a shot on net that created a rebound chance for Cal Clutterbuck. Shots like these create offensive opportunities. The Islanders tend to sniff out the perfect shot, but Pelech puts the puck on net whenever he can.
Feb. 9, 2019 vs. Colarado
Another game, another goal created by a timely Pelech shot. Once again, he puts to puck on net, giving Bailey a chance to score an easy goal. When goals are scored, Pelech is usually the last man to join the celebration. That is because his teammates reap the rewards of his long shots from the point. Pelech is the gift that keeps on giving, an endless stream of scoring chances other defensemen simply do not provide.
March 7, 2019 vs. Ottawa
With a playoff spot on the line, Pelech stepped up to the plate. His shimmy along the blueline gave him the space needed to take a shot, and when he did, he delivered. His backhand on net landed on Anthony Beauvillier’s stick, and the Islanders earned a huge win that gave them momentum in their postseason push.
March 30, 2019 vs. Sabres
Pelech does something very few players can do. He places shots perfectly through traffic, creating juicy chances for his forwards down low. The Islanders had a chance to clinch a playoff spot, and Pelech made the big play to give his team the win. Pelech is such a smart, level-headed player, and that shows when goals are scored because of his timely decisions.
Apr. 4, 2019 vs. Panthers
The Pelech poke. At 6′ 3″ and 218 pounds, Pelech has a long frame, and he uses it. With top talent barreling towards him, Pelech does not panic. Instead, he winds up, directing his stick right onto the puck, poking it to safety. Pelech did so against Florida in a crucial game, giving the Islanders a goal the first goal of the contest. Additionally, many of Pelech’s impactful plays come early in the game, allowing the Islanders to establish momentum that builds over the course of any given night.
Apr. 6, 2019 vs. Capitals
Pelech is a smooth player. With Valtteri Filppula cutting to the net, Pelech did not miss a chance for a goal. He gifted his centerman a flawless saucer pass, the catalyst for an insurance goal that cliched home-ice advantage. Pelech is the perfect teammate — he has fantastic chemistry with all of his counterparts, combining on great plays with everyone on the ice.
Apr. 10, 2019 vs. Penguins
In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tom Kühnhackl got the Islanders on the board, but his goal was overturned and the Islanders had to respond to keep momentum.
His timely shot from the point created yet another juicy rebound chance, setting the tone for the entire series. If Pelech does not shoot the puck, who knows how Game 1 ends? And who knows how that one shot changed the tone of the entire series? Remember: Game 1 ended in overtime. Without Pelech, the game does not get to that point.
Most defenseman would hold the puck in that situation, changing the pace of the game and eliminating any possible scoring chance. The butterfly effect is important, and Pelech’s timely pokes, pinches and shots lead to game-changing plays.
Speaking of game-changing, Pelech shut down Crosby in the playoffs last season, holding him to just one assist, six shots and a -4. Imagine if you heard that last December. Pelech went from sitting in the press box to shutting down one of the game’s brightest talents.
“I think you just approach it like any other game,” Pelech said. “But [Crosby] is also a great player, so you have to give him a lot of respect, you have to know where he is at all times and make sure you’re between him and the net. Especially when he’s out there, don’t cheat to offense, just play sound defensively, be reliable. I guess that’s what we’ve been trying to do this series.”
This season, Pelech has been even better. The 25-year-old rugged defenseman has barely hit his prime, growing every game. Against the Panthers on Oct. 12, Pelech poked the Islanders to victory in a truly fantastic performance.
Pelech logged 25:45 of ice time in the contest, three minutes ahead of the next closest skater. He added an assist, utilizing his poke check and pinches like always does, even earning playing time in overtime.
With Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews needing contracts soon and Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk and Thomas Hickey already locked up long-term, Pelech is the bargain. He was Garth Snow’s final gift, a great contract that gave the Islanders a playoff series victory and comeback story for the ages. At a bargain $1.6 million average annual value through the 2021 season, Pelech is one of the most valuable players in the NHL per dollar.
It has become abundantly clear that Adam Pelech is a top-pairing, elite defenseman. The kid from Toronto has done something no fan thought possible. Adam Pelech perfected the poke check. Adam Pelech patented the pinch. Adam Pelech conquered all challenges in his way.