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Taub: Pelech’s Transformation from Afterthought to Top D-Man

The New York Islanders are set to open the 2019-20 regular season one week from tomorrow. And what should come as a shock to many, Adam Pelech will most likely be slated on the club’s top defensive pairing opposite Ryan Pulock.

That’s the direction head coach Barry Trotz seems to be heading and kudos to Pelech for continuing his ascent as one of the Isles’ key blueliners for the future.

Pelech’s climb to a top spot on defense is all the more rewarding because nothing came easy for him.

At this point a year ago, the former 2012 third-rounder was staring down the barrel of being the number-six/seven defenseman in Trotz’s defensive corps. His place on the blue line was diminished with the new additions of top-end prospects — Noah Dobson and Bode Wilde — and the up-and-coming Devon Toews. To make things worse, Pelech was coming off a 2017-18 campaign where he struggled mightily defensively and a season two years earlier where he was limited to just 44 games while battling thoracic outlet syndrome.

Once the season got underway, Pelech’s stock continued to drop.

Pelech continued to have difficulty grasping Trotz’ new defensive structure and found himself in the dog house of his new head coach. Trotz scratched Pelech three times in the first two months of the year and even acknowledged that his play was “slipping” in mid-November. During a particular four-game stretch in December. Pelech averaged under 14 minutes of ice time.

It wasn’t until a fourth and final healthy scratch in a January afternoon game against the New York Rangers that Pelech flipped the switch.

In the three months that followed, Pelech emerged as one of the team’s best defensemen. His minutes rose to close to 20 minutes or more, he took on more responsibility as a penalty killer, and eventually found himself matched against the opposition’s top players. Even more crucial, his strong play got Trotz’ attention and praise.

“Yeah, he’s a lot different player than at the start of the year, and that’s fantastic for us and fantastic for him because he’s finding that next level of player that a player can be,” Trotz told reporters in March. “That’s what you want from a player is he understands that there’s a level he can get to. Why settle for good if he can be great?”

By season’s end, Pelech reached a new career-high in points (21) and goals (5). When the playoffs began, it was Pelech and Pulock who were given the task of handling the Pittsburgh Penguins top of  Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. They did more than just handle that trio — they shut them down completely.

In four games — what turned out to be a sweep — Pelech was sensational at both ends of the ice. Both his secondary assists accounted for the first goal of the series — scored by Jordan Eberle — and the proverbial nail in the coffin from captain Anders Lee in the closeout game. The second round against Carolina didn’t go as well for Pelech as he got hurt at some point during the series and the Isles were swept four straight. The end result though didn’t deter anyone’s thoughts — Pelech had finally come into his own.

Pelech is entering the third season of a four-year, $6.4M contract he signed back in the summer of 2017. He’s still only 25 — one of the three youngest d-men on the team with Pulock and Devon Toews — and is now entrenched more with Trotz’s defensive style. But, there could be bigger things on the horizon for Pelech.

He and Pulock have the chance to become one of the league’s more underrated top defensive pairs. Their performance last spring indicated as such.

Pelech alone could also become a vital penalty killer, helping replace the departed Valtteri Filppula; he’s already been deployed on the penalty kill by Trotz multiple times this preseason. Beyond that, Pelech will be able to embrace his physical style. He recorded 149 hits last year, fourth-most on the team.

From an offensive standpoint, Pelech will also get the opportunity to show off his offensive game. Even in a defensive-minded system, Pelech’s always been more accustomed to being an offensive d-man — in juniors with the Erie Otters he recorded 40-and-54-point seasons in consecutive years — but now he’ll really get his shot to bring that missing element to the Isles’ attack.

Adam Pelech is now one of the most important players on the Islanders roster. His play, as a top-two d-man, will be one of the underlying factors as to whether or not the Islanders continue their rousing success from a year ago.

An afterthought not too long ago, Pelech has risen.

Folow me on Twitter @RTaub_






About Rob Taub

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