The New York Islanders’ 7-4 loss to the St. Louis Blues was already a tough one to digest and arguably their worst performance of the season, and just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, defenseman Adam Pelech took a hit into the boards, and his head was the first thing to hit the UBS Arena wall. He left the game looking dazed and didn’t return.
Head coach Lane Lambert didn’t provide an update after the game, but the immediate concerns are that Pelech suffered a concussion or a head injury that might keep him out for at least a week. The bottom line is that the Islanders will be without one of their best players for some time, whether it’s for a few practices or multiple games.
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The Islanders have been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference this season, with a 16-11 record. However, losing Pelech for a considerable number of games could change the dynamics of the season, leaving them out of the playoff picture by the time he returns.
For the past few seasons, Pelech has been one of the best defensemen on the Islanders and among the best in the league. His ability to cut off angles to the net and limit effective shots has helped the team maintain one of the best defenses in the league in each of the last four seasons, allowing 2.82 goals per game or fewer in every season since 2018-19. Furthermore, his discipline and great instincts in all three zones helped give the Islanders an edge in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and allowed them to reach the semifinals in 2020 and 2021.
This season has been no different. Pelech has a team-high 2.1 defensive point shares and 41 blocked shots to lead a defense that is allowing only 2.70 goals per game. Additionally, he’s stepped up this season offensively, with three goals and eight assists, putting him on pace for a career year in both categories.
The Islanders’ defense is often associated with Noah Dobson, the rising star in the unit that is one of the best two-way players in the league. Likewise, many hockey fans think of Ryan Pulock, one of the best defensemen on the team, who also had one of the biggest moments in the team’s 2021 Playoff run. In the final seconds of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup semifinal against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pulock blocked a shot to seal the 3-2 victory. Pelech doesn’t garner the spotlight or the recognition, but without question, he is one of the defensemen that makes the unit one of the best and is one of the most valuable players on the team.
Who Plays Alongside Pulock?
Pelech and Pulock have formed one of the best defensive pairings in the NHL, with the two skaters creating turnovers in the neutral zone and defensive zone and possessing the speed to keep up with some of the best forward in the league. With Pelech out, the Islanders lack a player to pair with Pulock and his skillset. The question the team faces is finding someone on the roster who can take on that top pairing role.
Initially, the best defenseman to pair with Pulock would be Alexander Romanov, who plays the left side, like Pelech, and is one of the more talented young players on the team. While Romanov is talented and has been a great addition to the roster, his skillset clashes with Pulock’s. The 22-year-old is a hard-hitting, shot-blocking defenseman who has 73 hits and leads the team in blocked shots with 58, but he isn’t as great a skater. Ultimately, he’d give the Islanders a unique top pairing that can be successful, but it would be a risk.
The other possible options are Sebastian Aho, who is having a great season playing alongside veteran Scott Mayfield, and Robin Salo, who hasn’t played at the NHL level since the Oct. 20, 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Both skaters have the speed to play alongside Pulock, but as two of the least experienced defensemen on the team, they lack the defensive instincts that Pelech provides. Aho or Salo could move to the top pair, but it requires Pulock to take on a greater role to account for likely miscues. Regardless of the options, the upcoming games will need Lambert to shuffle the unit and potentially play multiple combinations to compensate for Pelech’s absence.
Islanders Left Side Woes Return
Last season, the left-side defense was the Islanders’ undoing. After trading Nick Leddy to the Detroit Red Wings in the 2021 offseason, general manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello replaced him by signing Zdeno Chara, who, along with Andy Greene, gave the team two of the oldest skaters in the league. Chara and Greene played well defensively but slowed down the team, notably struggling in transition and with their outlet passes. Their play limited the Islanders and was one of the many reasons they missed the playoffs.
This season, the biggest addition to the defense has been Romanov, acquired during the NHL Entry Draft from the Montreal Canadiens. However, arguably the most impactful decision was choosing to go with a younger defense, one that could keep up with the high-powered offense but also help contribute scoring. Aho has stepped up in his role to help round out the unit, and with three reliable pairings, the Islanders have one of the best defenses in the league.
Unfortunately, the Pelech injury makes the left side of the unit the weak link on the roster once again. Last year, the liability cost the Islanders a playoff spot, and the weakness could be their undoing in what has been an otherwise successful season.
Moreover, the pileup of injuries, which hurt the team last season, is starting to catch up to them. A lot of teams are dealing with injuries at this time of the season, and some are forced to call up multiple players from their American Hockey League (AHL) rosters. However, the Islanders have a roster built on its depth and can’t afford to lose players. With Kyle Palmieri and Cal Clutterbuck already leaving a hole on the right wing, another injury suddenly makes a deep roster look weak.
Islanders Upcoming Schedule
Pelech’s absence will especially hurt the Islanders, given the opponents that await them. They play the Devils, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Boston Bruins in their next three games. Along with being great teams, all three rosters have great offenses that win with speed and create open shots with quick passes in the offensive zone. It takes fast skaters to halt these offenses on the rush but also disciplined defensemen who can play their gaps and limit passing and shooting lanes alike. In short, Pelech is the ideal defenseman to have for the upcoming opponents, and the Islanders will likely play the next three games without him.
The worst-case scenario is that the team loses all three games, which would move their record to 16-14-0 on the season. While they’d still be an above .500 team, it would leave them well behind the rest of the contending teams in the Metropolitan Division. As a result, the upcoming stretch is pivotal to earn points, and they might have to do so without one of their most important players.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.