Two seasons ago, after the New York Islanders' second-consecutive deep playoff run, the defense pair of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock was viewed as one of the best defense pairings in the National Hockey League. Sure, other pairs were more skillful and generated more offense, but the Pelech-Pulock combination consistently logged heavy minutes and shut down top lines.
Whereas the Islanders are often under-appreciated and play relative anonymity, the team's playoff success no longer allowed the national media to ignore what Pelech and Pulock meant to the team's ascent under Barry Trotz. In Oct. 2021, The Score even ranked them as No. 1 overall, pointing out that without Pelech and Pulock on the ice at five-on-five, the Islanders’ GF% dropped nearly 7%, and their xGF% decreased by almost 12%.
Ahead of the 2021-22 season, both signed eight-year extensions, locking the lockdown pair of now 28-year-old defensemen on Long Island through the prime of their careers. While GM Lou Lamoriello has been criticized for giving out contracts that are either too long or too expensive (sometimes both), the extensions and AAV for both Pelech ($5.75M) and Pulock (have $6.15M) felt just right.
Since then, the perception of the two has changed from a dominant defensive duo to a very good but not elite pair. In a recent fan survey conducted by J Fresh Hockey, Pelech was ranked the 38th-best defenseman after finishing 23rd in the same poll last year. Meanwhile, Pulock dropped 16 spots year-over-year from 28 to 44. When together, Pelech-Pulock allowed 1.97 goals-against per 60 last season, according to Money Puck. That is up from their dominant 1.64 goals-against per 60 in 2021.
Last year, Pelech and Pulock spent less time together than anticipated, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of choice. Depending on injuries and how other defense pairs are fairing, head coach Lane Lambert would often mix and match his combinations depending on the situation and scenario. In short, the more Lambert can trust the likes of Noah Dobson, Alexander Romanov, and Sebastian Aho, the more he can keep the Pelech-Pulock combination intact.
Neither Pelech nor Pulock were at their best last season, individually or as a unit. A year after Pulock missed 26 games with a lower-body injury, he dressed for all 82 last year. However, in a season where the Isles' defense put up some of their best offensive numbers in 30 years, he had just five goals after that many in just 56 the year prior. It was in the playoffs when he turned things on and was the team's best and most physical player throughout the six-game series vs. Carolina.
Meanwhile, Pelech was out for 21 games with an upper-body injury suffered on Dec. 6. He was solid but not fully himself when he returned to the lineup on Jan. 23 and really struggled in the team's first-round playoff series against the Hurricanes, including making a costly turnover that led to the series-clinching goal in overtime.
If the Isles are going to be true to their identity as one of the best defensive teams in the league, it starts with Pelech and Pulock returning their not-too-distant form and their teammates on the blueline being good enough to where their presence isn't needed elsewhere.