What Makes NYI's Pelech-Pulock Pairing So Effective?
Detailing the tactical blueprint behind one of the NHL's most dominant defensive pairings
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The New York Islanders are once again proving their doubters wrong in 2020-21. Through 46 games, the Isles are a scintillating 29-13-4, good for 62 points, T-1st place in the East Division with the Capitals and a cushy 10 point lead on the 5th place Rangers.
The typical players have had great seasons for New York. But arguably their most important component to success this season has been the play of their stalwart defensive pairing featuring Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock.
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Much of the Pelech-Pulock pairing praise from the public sphere has come from their gaudy underlying numbers, and rightfully so. While their boxscore stats don’t jump off the page, they don’t need to.
They rank top-5 in every single 5v5 possession and play-driving measure (with three 1sts to boot) save for their *checks notes* 9th league-wide rank in CF%.
These numbers are absolutely incredible, especially considering their 35% Offensive Zone Start Percentage, which sits 34th in the NHL. They’re being deployed primarily as a defensive/shutdown pairing, and they’re simply dominating:
So, what allows them to enjoy such on-ice success while facing top NHL competition in a primarily defensive role?
Let’s take a look.
NYI’s Pelech-Pulock pairing is one of the best in the league thanks to a their ability to constantly stay connected.
Coaches will often talk about whether or not their team is ‘connected’ or not during games.
Connected teams, lines and pairings:
Run the proper systematic routes with consistency
Are able to provide useful support and fill space for their teammates
Have clean D-goalie exchanges and subsequent breakouts
Make passes and plays consistently with the absence of frequent or glaring mistakes
Disconnected teams, lines and pairings:
Don’t execute on the coach’s desired systematic assignments consistently or effectively
Don’t read routes well or fill appropriate support lanes
Jumble D-goalie exchanges and revert to a lot of glass and out breakouts
Miss passes, plays and coverage more often than is tolerable
For the best analogy and explanation I’ve ever read on connectedness in hockey, read Greg Revak and Daniel Dukart’s piece on Why a Hockey Team is Like a Lung from their hockey newsletter, Hockey’s Arsenal, here.
The concept applies to the Islanders as a whole, but specifically to the Pelech-Pulock pairing even more so.
Pelech & Pulock’s School of Chemistry
So, the Pelech-Pulock pairing is constantly ‘connected’ on the ice. But what does that actually look like?
Thanks to Barry Trotz’ exemplary systems instruction and implementation, NYI’s players are able to rely on and leverage significant predictability when it comes to their teammates’ whereabouts on the ice.
Pelech and Pulock take particular advantage of this predictability to play a relentless yet intelligent style of game for the Isles.
Jack Han detailed all of NYI’s systems here, but below is Jack’s illustration of NYI’s 5v5 DZC: a five tight approach designed to protect the most dangerous offensive segment of the ice: the middle.
As Jack lays out, the two principles for NYI D are simple: when the puck is low, D1 pressures with D2 protecting net-front. When the puck is high, both D recover to net-front to eliminate bodies/sticks.
Thanks to NYI D being able to trust their Fs to recover to the slot, they’re able to execute their low and high assignments fluidly and consistently — Pelech and Pulock are particularly adept at it.
In order to illustrate the pairing’s connectedness within NYI’s systems, I watched through their entire 1-0 shutout victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on April 18th to gather video examples.
Before we get into Pelech and Pulock’s actual defending, let’s first examine an underrated yet critically important factor for defencemen and teams to stay connected: D-goalie exchanges.
Every team has a set of quick, easy to understand phrases among defencemen and goaltenders for when the goalie retrieves an opposing dump. Teams with effective D-goalie exchanges are able to routinely communicate and problem-solve in order to make intelligent and rapid decisions to avoid the pressure of converging opponents.
Here’s a great example from the pair:
Low sag from Pelech in anticipation of dump
Quick and effective retrieval from Sorokin
Clear communication to work the puck back up strong side and avoid a converging Konecny
Pulock to a perfect support position to generate a quick up for NYI
Looks like a nothing play, and that’s exactly what you want D-goalie exchanges to be: non-events.
Pelech and Pulock minimize the need to play DZC altogether by playing effective preemptive defence.
The pairing is able to achieve lofty shot share and expected goal rates in-part thanks to an ability to preemptively defend through all three zones:
In the offensive zone, Pelech and Pulock work in concert perfectly to converge down the walls and disrupt any kind of rim or breakout attempt from opponents:
Through the neutral zone, Pelech and Pulock utilize timely anticipation to surf and/or step up to halt their opponents from developing any sort of play at all.
Anticipation, step up and nullification by Pulock
Komarov resets to Pelech
Pelech banks to Pulock’s predictable location
Pulock head up-ice, quick exit for NYI
Pelech recovers to NZ after pushing down wall in OZ to kill initial PHI breakout, reads then reacts to surf across NZ and force a PHI dump
Pulock back to recover puck in DZ
Pelech jumps on 50/50 puck that squirts loose in NZ
Pulock immediately activates down weak side lane to generate a controlled entry and deep OZ drive
Entry Defence + Defensive Zone
If the puck does in fact enter the NYI zone, it’s not long before our dynamic defensive duo have completely nullified the play and turned things north again for their team.
When NYI has numbers back, their controlled entry defence posits their D scull back inside dot line approximately in line with the inside hashmarks.
This clip shows the pair’s excellence on rush defence:
Pulock gets over top of his check to eliminate passing option and eventually pick off the pass
Pelech gets under his check and takes his stick to eliminate possibility of a fluke slot pass turning into a PHI chance
Pulock with a poised double evasion + glass and out play to reset for NYI
No PHI SA, SOG or chance, and subsequently, no CF, SF or xGF generated
When NYI doesn't have numbers back in a controlled entry against scenario, they ask their D to keep everything to the outside, recover to post and wait for help from their backchecking Fs. Again, Pelech and Pulock execute this to near perfection every time.
Pelech forces Voracek to the outside and recovers to post
Pulock maintains a strong stick and holds back post + slot
Pelech jumps once Fs are back to kickstart an exit for NYI
Clear pairing communication through NZ to determine assignments
Pelech forces perimeter shot
Pulock quickly eliminates initial PHI puck recoverer while Pelech recovers to net-front
Pelech through near post to challenge PHI F low and force a cycle reset and eventual turnover for PHI
Chicken, Meet Egg
The Pelech-Pulock pairing has been receiving mass praise this season, and for good reason. Many analysts have even tabled the idea of splitting the Norris trophy between two players in future, or creating an award for the best D-pairing in the NHL (something I’m totally here for).
When it comes to Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, two things are true:
They are both very good defencemen who play the position well
They play for a world-class coach who has implemented a system that allows them to thrive
Both factors are invaluable to one another. And at the end of the day, Trotz’ systems can only be as good as the players executing them on the ice.
To me, the Pelech-Pulock pairing is the best pairing in the NHL. Their secret weapon? An ability to constantly stay connected on the ice.
NYI are going to be a force down the stretch and through playoffs, and the Pelech-Pulock pairing is a big reason why.