How Adam Pelech Is Shining Despite New York Islanders’ Struggles

Following three consecutive playoff runs during which they looked like a live dog, the New York Islanders have veered off track. Barry Trotz’s club is 17-17-6 and sitting 15 points out of a wild-card spot at the midway point of the season.

This must feel bitterly disappointing for a team that entered the campaign with championship aspirations. In the offseason, the Islanders announced their intentions by signing veterans Zdeno Chara and Zach Parise as well as re-signing Adam Pelech, Kyle Palmieri, Anthony Beauvillier and Ilya Sorokin: It’s time to finally get over the hump.

Unfortunately, very little has gone according to plan in 2021-22. Ryan Pulock has missed most of the year, Palmieri’s marksmanship has vanished (1 goal in 29 games), Beauvillier (16 points in 37 games), Anders Lee (17 points in 35 games) and Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s production (12 points in 38 games) has dipped, etc. New York still protects the house reasonably well (12th in expected goals allowed, fifth in actual goals allowed), but it can’t muster any finish whatsoever (29th in goals scored).

There is one bit of good news, though: Pelech is still excelling on the blue line.

Despite playing alongside a new partner in Scott Mayfield and on a roster that is floundering almost across the board, he’s doing everything in his power to right the ship. Oddly enough, the shutdown defenseman’s impact is first seen on the offensive end. While his puck management remains as simple as ever—he’s an avid fan of flips into the neutral zone—he routinely sets the table for his teammates with well-timed pinches:

Since the Isles aren’t a clinical shooting group (23rd in on-ice shooting percentage), Pelech looks to prolong their attacks and wear down the opposition through volume. He gives them as many cracks as possible at breaking through, which is evidenced by his team-high shot attempt and scoring chance rates.

When he can’t hold the blue line, he doesn’t just give up ground either. With his deceptive quickness and length, he keeps a tight gap on opponents in order to stifle them before they even get out of the starting block. He has the wingspan to corral virtually any puck-carrier, he has the instincts to push up against forwards while minimizing risk and he has the mobility to recover if things do go south.

Pelech simply trusts his physical tools and split-second reads—and he’s right far more often than not. As such, gaining a clean zone entry against him is a tall order:

Surviving isn’t good enough. The Islanders need to tilt the ice and throw everything they can at their adversaries, and Pelech’s knack for limiting the time his club spends defending aligns directly with that goal. No blueliner on the team allows fewer high-danger opportunities or expected goals. To take it one step further, among the 126 defensemen who have logged at least 600 minutes at 5-on-5, he ranks fifth in xGA60 (1.99). The next closest Islander (Mayfield) ranks 49th.

Of course, given the club’s lack of reliable skill and overall troubles, it does require stout defending too. Thankfully, Pelech might represent the cream of the crop in that regard.

His stinginess is built around his stick. He possesses a long reach for a 6’3” blueliner and he’s incredibly active with his twig, not only denying puck-carriers large swaths of the Islanders’ zone but also using his leverage to tie up forwards who have their sights set on deflections or tap-ins. Combined with his hockey sense, his range is maddening to contend with. He can catch up from anywhere on the ice, he’ll find the puck if you expose a mere sliver of it and his blade placement is so precise that just registering a shot on target is a minor victory.

Here’s a taste of Pelech’s unparalleled stick work:

Moreover, the 27-year-old isn’t afraid to use his body. Though he isn’t a heat-seeking missile who hits to hurt (e.g. Radko Gudas), he nevertheless understands how to separate his man from the puck thanks to his 205-pound frame.

Along the boards, he’s exceptional at matching his opponent’s speed and cutting off their runway. His pursuit angles are immaculate. In the middle of the ice, he stays square to puck-carriers and forces them into taking the long way around. Within the Islanders’ structure, that funnels opposing forwards straight into backcheckers or Pelech’s partner:

This brand of physicality won’t land on a flashy YouTube reel, but when deployed next to his outstanding stick work, his efficiency makes him a nightmare at the point of attack. In fact, he leads all NHL defensemen in goals allowed per 60 minutes (1.31) even though he starts just 35.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone. That’s how suffocating his shutdown game is. On the whole, the Islanders control 54.5% of the expected goals and 64.1% of the actual goals during his shifts. When he’s off the ice, New York’s xGF% and GF% plummet to 47.3 and 43.0, respectively.

In a year when seemingly nothing has gone right for his squad, Pelech may be delivering his finest hockey yet. He’s locking up opposing forwards and giving his teammates every opportunity to summon their scoring touch and chart a path back into the playoff picture.

With half a season already down the drain, they need to seize it in a hurry.

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