For a defenseman, not being noticed can be a good thing. It means they’re doing all of the little things right and limiting their mistakes. But sometimes, when they’re not in the lineup, especially for a considerable amount of time, the loss becomes more obvious than they’re playing time. The New York Islanders’ Adam Pelech is the epitome of that type of player, and they’re struggling without him.
More Pressure on Veteran Defensemen
Signed in the summer of 2017 to a four-year deal, Pelech has been part of the Islanders’ homegrown talent that has led the way defensively along with Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield, and Devon Toews. His injury earlier this calendar year was a huge blow to the lineup and to the organization whose prospect pool was shallow to begin with. Sebastian Aho was recalled from the American Hockey League’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers the following day as insurance to rookie Noah Dobson, who had been in and out of the lineup to start the season and was still unproven.
Aho never got his shot, but Dobson, the Islanders’ first-round (12th overall) pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, has been in the lineup on a consistent basis ever since. It’s a huge opportunity for the back-to-back Memorial Cup winner, who has five points through his first 28 career games.
Though his ice time was limited at first, he’s been growing into his role and has been rewarded. However, he is no replacement for Pelech, which means the other veteran defensemen on the team are tasked with increased and more difficult minutes. Pelech provided a big body on the backend and was used against their opponent’s top players.
“Trotz had been leaning on the Nick Leddy-Pulock pair and experimenting with permutations as he continues to shelter Noah Dobson as much as possible. Even though Leddy hadn’t seen any power play time in over a month, he experienced plenty of wear and tear by moving into a regular penalty-kill role in Adam Pelech’s absence,”from “Islanders begin pivotal week with a win and an impression for Lou Lamoriello ahead of the trade deadline,” The Athletic, 2/11/2020.
This makes everyone a little nervous, especially as the team makes a push for a playoff spot. Not to mention, what happens when/if the team enters the first round and some of their top defensemen are already worn down? While the team has adjusted without Pelech and is now playing a little more consistently, the new normal means allowing more goals than the defense-first Islanders are used to.
Increased Goals Against per Game
Since Pelech’s injury, the team has allowed three or more goals in 12 of 16 games. In the 16 games before losing Pelech, the Islanders only allowed three goals in seven games. That’s a pretty big jump, especially for a team that struggles to score and doesn’t have any help on the way, barring a trade over the next two weeks.
Some of the increase in goals allowed can be attributed to goaltending, which has looked human over the last two months; it might also be due to lackadaisical play by the forwards, but a lot of it has to do with Pelech not being in the lineup.
It doesn’t help that Casey Cizikas, one of head coach Barry Trotz’s most reliable penalty-killers and the engine to the fourth line, suffered an injury in a recent victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Cizikas will only be out three to four weeks, which the Islanders can survive, but Cole Bardreau, who was called up the following day, will have his work cut out for him.
A trade to fortify the defense is a possibility, but that may not be necessary with Thomas Hickey’s possible return to the Sound Tigers lineup by this weekend. Hickey, a veteran of 449 NHL games, all with the Islanders, could provide some stability on the back end once he’s up to speed. He was a critical part of the Islanders’ 2016 first-round playoff series win against the Florida Panthers, their first in over two decades. He isn’t as big a player as Pelech, but he can be physical when necessary.
This will depend on Hickey being in the lineup this weekend and getting back into game shape in short order. This would save assets for a possible trade for a top-nine forward, which fans have been screaming for all season long.
The Islanders have been fortunate enough to score more than usual lately, with five in three of the last four games, which has helped to mask their defensive woes without Pelech. With the team in the middle of a hectic schedule against some tough competition on the road, the Islanders will need to tighten up if they plan on holding on to their playoff spot.
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Jon Zella is a 31-year-old, Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.