It may be an announcer’s nightmare when Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock are on the ice together, but they are also becoming a nightmare for opponents. These two players, who were born within two months of each other in 1994, have become the New York Islanders’ top defensive pairing and among the best in the NHL. Pelech and Pulock bring out the best in each other, complemented by their opposite styles of defense.
Pelech is best known for his play in his own zone, while Pulock is an offensive weapon from the blue line with a slap shot that has been registered at over 100 mph. Since they’ve been paired together, they’ve improved their overall game.
Pelech was drafted in the third round in 2012, and Pulock was a first-round pick in 2013. Both players started in the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and worked their way onto the NHL roster. They each joined the team with a different set of skills. While they didn’t play as a pair early in their careers, putting them together was one of the best moves made by Barry Trotz when he took over as head coach in 2018-19.
The Islanders’ defense went from allowing the most goals in the NHL in 2017-18, the season before Trotz took over, to allowing the fewest in Pelech and Pulock’s first year playing together. Their plus-minus rose by over 20 points, and each now has had a plus-29 rating or better in the past two seasons, mostly playing together. Pulock also started to receive plenty of ice-time on the penalty kill alongside Pelech.
The Islanders also went from having the worst penalty kill in the league and in team history at 73.2 percent in 2017-18 to 79.9 in 2018-19, which was Pulock’s first real opportunity playing with a man down. Their percentage increased again in 2019-20 to 81.8 percent.
The pairing’s biggest test came in the 2019 postseason when they matched up against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. Not only did the Islanders sweep the series, but Pulock and Pelech held Sidney Crosby to one point. They had more of a challenge in Round 2 against the Carolina Hurricanes when the Isles were swept.
However, in those playoffs, the pairing was used to protect the lead late in games. Trotz has been known to rotate his defensemen, but Pelech and Pulock’s ice time increased as the playoffs went on. That extra ice time and being used in high-pressure situations helped them gain valuable postseason experience.
In the 2020 Playoffs, the duo started off matched against Aleksander Barkov and the Florida Panthers in the qualifying round. The young superstar registered a point in every game but never had a multi-point game. Pelech and Pulock were then matched up against Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals followed by Claude Giroux and the Philadelphia Flyers in the first two rounds and were sharp as well.
They also started their shifts in the defensive and neutral zones 154 times out of 182 shifts in the 2020 Postseason and still managed to be on the ice for 13 goals scored and only 13 goals allowed.
Both players make it very difficult for opposing forwards to enter the attacking zone. They can start the rush and play physical when they need to. It took time, but the more the two played together, the better they became at anticipating where the other would be on the ice.
The only area that has slowed Pelech’s progress has been his inability to stay healthy. He had multiple injuries earlier in his career including thoracic outlet syndrome which cost him nearly half a season. In January, he suffered what was considered at the time to be a season-ending Achilles injury, but had enough time to heal during the four and a half month NHL shutdown to return for the playoffs.
However, the Islanders were a different team with Pelech out of the lineup. Even though Pulock played well with Nick Leddy, the Islanders suffered and went from allowing 2.6 goals per game with Pelech healthy to 3.1 when he was out of the lineup.
The team also went 25-10-3 to start the season with Pelech and Pulock together but lost 20 of the 30 games Pelech missed to end the shortened season. When the two returned as a pair in the playoffs, the Islanders limited teams to 2.3 goals per game in the playoffs while Pelech was healthy.
This duo has the potential to get better every season and has benefited tremendously from Trotz’s system. Pelech will be a free agent at the end of the 2020-21 season and will undoubtedly see his salary rise from $1.6 million. Pulock is a restricted free agent this offseason and is likely to return and see his salary rise from $2 million.
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The hope is the Islanders can keep two of their top defensemen, which they have seen come through their system. The sky is the limit for the two as both players have become leaders on the backend for New York.