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A Pinch of Pelech

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Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech is extremely reckless when pinching into the offensive zone

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NHL: Winnipeg Jets at New York Islanders
Adam Pelech icing the puck. Again.
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine you’re going to an Islanders game in Brooklyn. You’re walking down Flatbush Ave and reach Atlantic Ave. This is a big intersection with six lanes of heavy traffic and you have to cross it to reach Barclays Center.

You are running a bit late and you will probably miss the first two to three minutes of the game. The light is red at the moment and cars are whizzing by in front of you, but you can see that in just a few seconds, there will be a small gap until the next wave of traffic arrives.

You estimate that you’ll have three or four seconds to sprint full speed across Flatbush Ave to avoid getting hit by a car and suffering death or serious bodily injury.

You further estimate that it would take you between five to six seconds to actually make it across this huge intersection. Should you decide to make a run for it, you are very much putting your life at risk.

Your decision of whether to (a) sprint across Flatbush Ave (but probably die), or (b) wait 45 seconds for the light to turn green (but miss 45 seconds of the game) therefore comes down to a risk-reward assessment:

  • Risk: Your life.
  • Reward: 45 extra seconds of Islanders hockey.

So what do you think? Let’s just say, for the sake of this exercise, that watching the Islanders does not feel like punishment, and that you’re actually looking forward to this game. Is 45 seconds of Islanders hockey worth risking your life?

If you answered "yes" to this question, then congratulations, you are Adam Pelech.


Adam Pelech is, without question, the most reckless defenseman on the Islanders.

This recklessness most often manifests itself when he steps up at the offensive zone blue line to pinch in. But Pelech’s poor judgment is not limited exclusively to his pinches; it comes out in a variety of other situations too, like puck retrievals, failed clear-outs, icings, changes and more. As you can see in the following video.

You might notice I cut a lot of these plays off early, before their completion. That’s because the end result should have absolutely no bearing on our evaluation of Pelech’s decision-making.

That Florida failed to capitalize on the 2-on-1 resulting from Pelech’s pinch is irrelevant. That Minnesota did capitalize on the 2-on-0 rush resulting rom Pelech’s premature change (when he was the last man back and yet totally oblivious that his partner, Sebastian Aho, had already signaled for a change in front of him (4:40 of the video)) is irrelevant.

All that’s relevant is that Pelech’s decision resulted in a very dangerous scoring chance for the opposing team. And way too often this season, it has.


Pinching

In touching on the topic of pinching in my recap of the Isles’ brutal 4-0 shutout loss to Pittsburgh in January, I relayed some guidance from legendary coach Al Arbour, as told by Butch Goring during a recent broadcast: “You pinch to keep the puck in, you don’t pinch to play the man.”

Now it’s true the game has changed in the last 25 years and pinching is probably more prevalent now than it used to be. But that guiding principle still applies today. There are of course other factors a defenseman should consider and/or be aware of when deciding whether or not to pinch in from the blue line.

A defenseman should NOT pinch when some combination of the following factors are present:

  • He has little to no chance of getting to the puck first and keeping it in the offensive zone;
  • The opposing team already has control of the puck and is starting to break out of their zone (with extra caution warranted if it’s the other team’s most dangerous forwards involved);
  • All three of your forwards are caught deep in the zone and are not in a position to cover for you at the point;
  • Your defensive partner has already pinched in (and no forward is covering for him);
  • There’s a good chance of an odd-man rush against if you fail to keep the puck in.

This isn’t some strict guide here. Each situation is of course unique and impacted by other contextual factors such as the time and score of the game.

If a team is trailing 3-0 in the third period, it makes sense to start taking greater risks and pinching in more aggressively.

If a team is leading 3-0 in the third period, it should not be taking unnecessary risks that can easily result in prime scoring chances against. (Ominous, foreshadowing music plays as you re-read the preceding sentence.)

One last thing any coach will tell you is when it comes to pinching, hesitation is death. It’s a split-second decision and you’ve either gotta step up decisively or just get back on defense.

Example of when to pinch and when not to pinch

Before getting to the ugly stuff, let’s first take a look at an example where an Isles defenseman (a) made a good decision to pinch in, and (b) made a good decision not to pinch in. I noticed one particular shift from the 5-3 loss to the Wild where Pelech’s partner, Sebastian Aho, gave a great example of each in quick succession:

With the puck up for grabs and Aho in position to get it deep, he decisively pinches in and does just that. Then, when the Wild have the puck and are looking to break out, Aho gets back on defense rather than pinch in and risk an odd-man rush the other way. He backtracks and ends up thwarting Minnesota’s attack in the neutral zone. Nice and easy, right? Wrong.


A Pinch of Pelech

Now, let’s take a look at three absolutely terrible pinches Adam Pelech has made over the last 20 games.

(1) Pinch vs Panthers

This is an abominable decision by Pelech.

First of all, the Panthers already have the puck. This isn’t a 50/50 race Pelech might win to keep the puck in. By stepping up here, he’s risking a definite 2-on-1 for Florida in order to maybe, hopefully, at best, steal or poke the puck away. And it’s not like the Islanders will have an imminent scoring chance in the incredibly small chance Pelech is able to do so.

What makes Pelech’s decision even worse wois the fact that on the ice, directly in front of him, are two of Florida’s most dangerous forwards, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck. By sheer luck, Florida just misses the net and the Islanders do not pay the price for Pelech’s absurd decision.

Sometimes I wonder if Pelech’s entire objective when he’s on the ice is to do the absolute dumbest thing possible. If that’s the case, he should be very proud of himself for this shift here and even prouder of the two to follow.


(2) Pinch vs Rangers

  • So the Islanders just went up 3-0 against the Rangers early in the third period;
  • Three Isles forwards get caught deep behind the puck as the Rangers start to break out;
  • The Isles are having a very hard time holding leads and giving up goals;
  • Right in front of Pelech is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, Michael Grabner; and
  • Pelech has no chance to get to the puck first; the Rangers already have control of it.

Once again, there is no excuse whatsoever for this terrible pinch.

With his team up 3-0, Pelech’s default mindset should be to get back on defense unless he’s damn near certain to get to the puck first. But here, the Rangers have already taken control of it.

I simply cannot wrap my head around what it is Pelech is thinking when he does something like this.

To revisit my hyperbolic analogy, on this play Pelech decides to risk getting hit by a car by sprinting across Flatbush Ave, to get to a game that doesn’t even start for another half hour, to forego waiting for a light that will turn green in five seconds (not 45). There’s just no point in taking this risk here. None.

That Pelech is bailed out by Ryan Pulock on this play, once again, is entirely irrelevant.


(3) Pinch vs Devils

It’s hard for me to put into words just how remarkably terrible a decision this was by Pelech to pinch in here. His complete and utter disregard for the risks associated with his actions is astounding, it really is.

So goalie Keith Kinkaid turns Barzal away with a nice poke-check and the puck pops out to the slot, where the Devils take control of it. Mind you, the Isles were up 1-0 here in what was (at the time) an important divisional game.

Adam Pelech then inexplicably steps up from the blue line even though his defensive partner, Aho, has already pinched in himself! At the moment Pelech steps up, Aho is caught deep in the zone by the net, along with all three Islanders forwards.

Which means there’s no forward covering back for the pinching Aho.

Which means Adam Pelech is the last man and the only man back on defense.

Which means Pelech should be getting back on defense here no matter what, even if it was a 50/50-or-better race to the puck.

Which, of course, it was not. Pelech had absolutely no chance to get to the puck first because the Devils already had clean control of it. I hope you’re noticing my liberal use of italics and exclamation points in this post.

The end result here is that Damon Severson - a defenseman (!) - gets a breakaway where he’s totally in the clear from his own blue line on. The only reason Pelech’s ultimately able to catch him from behind is because Severson stumbles when he first collects the puck, probably from the pure shock at seeing nothing but open ice in front of him.


The common element I find most alarming in these plays is Pelech’s complete lack of awareness of what’s going on around him.

See, I know some of you may feel compelled to point out what you believe to be other mistakes made in these plays, prior to the pinches in question. Maybe you think Aho (in the Devils play) and/or Cizikas (in the Rangers play) were too aggressive. You think I’m being too hard on poor Pelech and you want to allocate some of the blame elsewhere.

This is missing the point entirely. As the last man back, Pelech needs to be aware of everything going on in front of him. If his own partner has pinched in too deep and there’s no forward covering back for him, Pelech needs to see this and react accordingly by erring even more on the side of caution.

In fact this is precisely what makes Pelech’s decision to pinch in these plays all the more inexplicable. He’s either aware of these other factors but disregards them entirely, or he’s completely oblivious to them. I’m not sure which is worse.


So there it is, folks.

Please understand I'm not in any way pinning this team's defensive struggles on one man's shoulders. After all, there's not a single Islanders defenseman over 50% in on-ice shot attempt differential. From Nick Leddy on down, it's been an unmitigated disaster on the back end. And I'll get to the other guys in due time.

But I had to start with no. 50 because even on a team whose defensive struggles run this deep, Adam Pelech consistently distinguishes himself with this terrible decision-making.

Until next time.