January 2, 2020, was supposed to be just another night with another game for the New York Islanders.
Looking back at it now, in the midst of the NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus, it was that evening that almost derailed the team’s season.
Set to host the lowly New Jersey Devils, the Isles announced just before puck drop that d-man Adam Pelech would not dress after suffering a lower-body injury. Rookie Noah Dobson was thrown in to take Pelech’s place, but questions began to arise as to how Pelech got hurt.
Did it happen in the game prior? During morning skate? At practice?
Instead, it was rather the normal pre-game activity for all hockey players — two-touch soccer — where it was revealed Pelech tore his Achilles tendon.
Isles g.m. Lou Lamoriello made the announcement a day later, calling it a “freak accident.” Things only got worse from there. Lamoriello added that the 25-year-old would miss the rest of the season.
The severity of Pelech’s injury sent shockwaves through the organization and the fan base. The Isles, although they had lost to New Jersey the night prior, were still tied for second place in the Metropolitan Division and seemed to be primed for a second straight playoff appearance.
So, not only was the team losing a regular in the lineup, one of the top-four on defense, and their most steady and reliable blue-liner, but they were losing arguably their second-most valuable player behind center Mathew Barzal.
Pelech, before being sidelined, had evolved into one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL dating back to last January. He came on incredibly strong in the second half of last season and did a tremendous job shutting down Sidney Crosby in the Isles’ first-round sweep of the Penguins. Pelech’s performance as a number-one D pushed head coach Barry Trotz to anoint him and Ryan Pulock as the club’s top-pair on defense.
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) November 8, 2019
Pelech’s absence definitely had a trickle-down effect on the entire team.
The Isles struggled mightily to keep the puck out of the net and keep a calmer demeanor in their own zone. Some of that blame can be placed on the goaltending and the forwards, but Pelech being 6’3 and close to 220 pounds provided a big body which was tasked with keying in on the opposition’s top players. He also knows how to slow the play down and not get rattled, which allows his team to regroup.
Those missing elements unquestionably played a factor in why the Isles were 10-12-7 without Pelech before the season was postponed. Pelech is so defensively responsible and plays incredibly well to Trotz’s system that replacing him was almost impossible.
Speaking of Trotz, he went on with the guys from Sportsnet’s Hockey Central late last week and revealed that he believes his team was hit with the “wrong injuries this year at the wrong times that didn’t allow us keep our head above water enough where we would be in a better situation.” You best believe he was referring to Pelech as well as the ones to Casey Cizikas, Johnny Boychuk, and Cal Clutterbuck.
This past Saturday would have marked the end of the regular season, with the playoffs set to begin tomorrow. There was no guarantee the Isles would have been starting their first-round series against whomever or watching from home. But they might have actually caught some luck with this extended break.
That’s a great development for him and the organization. They’ll definitely need him, and they for sure were missing him since he got hurt.
Pelech’s season-ending setback had a major impact on the Islanders, but it could have been so much worse.
The Isles were very lucky it didn’t.