The New York Islanders are coming off another deep playoff run after a successful 2020-21 season. Despite coming up just short of the Stanley Cup Final, many players contributed to the Islanders’ second consecutive semifinal series.
One of the team’s biggest strengths is their top defensive pairing of Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech. Pelech just inked an eight-year, $46 million contract, making him the Islanders’ highest-paid blueliner, by far one of Lou Lamoriello’s best moves as general manager (GM). Pulock is due for a new contract at the end of this season.
The question now is whether Pulock can take the next step forward and claim the top defensive spot or if Pelech will continue to grow his offensive game to add to his near-perfect defense and claim that title himself. At the moment, the Islanders don’t have a bonafide number one defenseman; however, each player has shown signs that they can reach that status and if it has to be one of them, which will it be?
Pulock has been pegged to become the Islanders’ top defenseman since he was drafted 15th overall in the 2013 NHL Draft. He’s developed well since then and has made a case for himself, especially after his historic game-saving play in Game 4 of the 2021 semifinal rematch against the Tampa Bay Lightning to tie the series.
“Because I have seen the play almost 50 times by now,” said Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post. “I can’t stop. It is one of the most unique plays — factoring its unusualness, and the gravity of the moment, and the astonishing athletic instincts involved — I’ve ever seen,” (from, ‘What Ryan Pulock did for Islanders is in all-time great company,’ New York Post, 07/20/21).
Pulock’s defense is top-notch, though it helps that his blue line partner is Pelech. His issue is offense. Since 2017-18, he has never scored more than 10 goals or 37 points (2018-19), but in 2020-21, he dropped to two goals and 17 points in 56 games, which was on pace for roughly 25 points over an 82-game schedule. That’s unusual for a player who is entering his prime on a bridge deal and looking for a raise when he negotiates his next contract sometime between now and next summer.
Those two goals can be explained by Pulock’s measly shooting percentage (S%) of 1.7% last season. Fortunately, that number skyrocketed in the 2021 Playoffs when he potted four goals in 19 games, for a 13.8 S%. There’s no question that he has a rocket of a shot, but during the regular season, he had a hard time hitting the net. He also shoots at a much higher clip than any other defenseman with 121 shots in the regular season, which outshot Pelech, who registered 82 shots.
Analytics tell a different story. Pulock’s stats suggest he was much better than his two goals suggest. He led all Islanders blueliners in high-danger Corsi for percent (HDCF%) at 60.19%. He also led all defensemen in expected goals-for percent (xGF%) at 55.20%. His Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 52.01% was second to Noah Dobson.
Pulock isn’t lacking in offensive attempts, leading Islanders defensemen in most categories and doing an excellent job of keeping the puck out of the defensive zone. He just needed to hit the net a lot more often than he did.
After what has been a strange two seasons haunted by COVID-19, getting back to some form of normalcy in his first 82-game season could propel Pulock to become the Islanders’ number one defenseman. A new arena at Belmont, being on the cusp of a new contract, and with his sights set on a Stanley Cup, could be enough to push Pulock to take that next step forward and lead the Islanders’ blue line.
Many were shocked when former Islanders GM Garth Snow protected Pelech ahead of the 2017 Expansion Draft, but many are now thankful Snow saw something we all didn’t. Heading into the first season of his new eight-year contract, expectations are high for Pelech.
“Without a doubt, this is where I want to be. I couldn’t be happier with the term, and I think all of the guys here feel the same way,” Pelech said. “They know there is something special going on here, and everyone is really excited to be a part of it moving forward.”
Pelech is finally receiving the praise he deserves and has even been penciled in on some mock Team Canada rosters for the 2022 Bejing Winter Olympics. He is one of the best defensemen in the league, and although his analytics aren’t nearly as good as his partner’s, that can be explained by one simple statistic. He had a combined 481 starts in the neutral and defensive zones last season (247 in the defensive zone, 234 in the neutral zone) and just 85 offensive zone starts. His role is to help prevent the puck from going in the Islanders’ net and drive the puck forward. However, Pelech is good for the occasional offensive gem:
Offensive contributions from the blue line were slim, but Pelech led the team’s defensemen in goals (four) and S% (4.9%) last season. He is also entering his prime and could find another level to his game to open up offensively. His analytics don’t support the possibility, with a 46.83 CF% and 49.09 xGF%, but his 55.39 HDCF% is encouraging. His defensive zone starts heavily outweigh his offensive starts, but if those numbers even out, he should reach a higher offensive output. However, that’s up to head coach Barry Trotz, and if he thinks it hinders the Islanders’ chances of keeping the puck out of their net.
The numbers indicate it’s more likely Pulock will run away with this race given the time he receives in the offensive zone, and his power-play opportunities. However, the Islanders still need to fill a Nick Leddy-sized hole on defense, and if it can’t be filled, someone needs to step up. So, why not Pelech? The Islanders’ top-pairing defenseman are in for a heck of a workload in 2021-22. It’s not realistic to think one, or both, could take a major step forward, especially because both Pulock and Pelech’s analytics have only improved over the last three seasons.
Who do you think will break out as the Islanders’ number one defenseman in the 2021-22 NHL season. Let us know in the comments below.
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James is a THW New York Islanders writer and podcast host of Nassaumen Hockey Podcast. A trusted source for Islanders content for many years at THW, James is passionate about keeping Islander fans up to date on the latest in Islanders news. Other content contributions also include his Co-Editor-in-Chief status for NYIslesBlog.com. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow James on Twitter.