This Adam Pelech article is written by special guest contributor Bathtub Jake.
The stage was set for Adam Pelech to prove the doubters wrong. Coming off a shaky start to the 2018-2019 season speckled with blunders and scratches, Pelech was a top-pairing, defensive defenseman. Following months of growth in both ice time and his coaches’ trust, Pelech had reached the height of his young career thus far: shutting down Sidney Crosby and the Penguins’ top forwards in the Islanders’ first round sweep.
With expectations high for Pelech, the 2019-2020 season began on a high note. Despite a losing effort, Pelech impressed in the opener against the Washington Capitals. This time, Alexander Ovechkin was victimized by “the long arm of the law,” Islanders’ color commentator Butch Goring’s nickname for Pelech’s stick check. The 25-year old stay-at-home defender then suffocated the high octane offense of the Winnipeg Jets. Pelech picked up right where he left off.
As the Islanders accumulated wins, the top pairing of Pelech and partner Ryan Pulock led the defense. Consistently logging over 20 minutes per game, Pelech’s defensive reliability allowed Pulock to flourish offensively. The pair that dominated Crosby and company in the 2019 playoffs were pivotal in the Islanders’ 10-game win streak and 17-game point streak.
In the coming months, Pelech often topped the roster in ice time. Averaging 21:08, he was second on the team to Pulock in even-strength ice time and second to Scott Mayfield in shorthanded minutes. Pelech was a league leader in blocked shots, regularly in the top-10, sometimes piercing the top-five as well. Labeling his game “outstanding” after a 4-2 win against the Coyotes, Pelech was Trotz’ most valuable defensive asset.
After a rocky December, the Islanders hoped 2020 would restore their swagger. However, just three days in, they were met with devastating news: Adam Pelech was out for the remainder of the season. In what was described as a “freak accident” by general manager Lou Lamoriello, Pelech had injured his achilles.
Both Trotz and Lamoriello mentioned the irreplaceable nature of Pelech’s role, with Lamoriello identifying him as a “top defenseman.” After an excellent 25-10-3 start to the season, the Islanders immediately felt Pelech’s absence. Losing four out of their first six games without him, the team embarked on a wildly inconsistent journey. This journey, after a 10-13-7 stretch, reached its destination: third place in the wildcard and out of a playoff spot.
With the Islanders boasting a 2.61 goals against average before Jan. 3, their inefficient offense was not ready for the challenges ahead. The goals against skyrocketed to 3.03 behind a Pelech-less blueline, forcing the Islanders to outscore their problems. Despite only racking up one goal and nine points in 38 games, Pelech’s stellar defensive play gave forwards the opportunity to play more comfortably.
The post-Pelech defensive decline grew desperate enough to require a trade deadline acquisition. The Islanders traded for defenseman and New Jersey Devils captain Andy Greene to compensate for Pelech’s loss. Although a welcome addition, the Islanders still allowed more than three goals in five of Greene’s 11 games with the team.
Coming into the season, Pelech was going to be relied upon as a top-pairing defenseman. He did not disappoint and his injury proved that. It served as the backdrop to the Islanders losing 20 out of their next 30. Contrast this to the stingy, defensive hockey that characterized fall and early winter, and it is clear Pelech exceeded expectations. In just over a year, the player that struggled to make the lineup in 2018 developed into one of the premier shutdown defenders in the NHL.
In a game on Oct. 12 against the Florida Panthers, Pelech best showcased his brilliance. Leading the pack in ice time with nearly twenty-six minutes played, Pelech’s weaponized poke check and elite shot blocking overpowered the Panthers’ top gunners. He recorded an assist and was rewarded with time in overtime. Coach Barry Trotz had placed trust in the young defenseman, and while Adam Pelech was justifying this faith, he was proving the cynics wrong.