Defenseman Adam Pelech is making a name for himself during his third season of junior hockey.
The Islanders third round (65th overall) selection in the 2012 NHL Draft has already achieved career-highs with four goals and 21 points in just 26 games for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, and is one assist away from last season’s high-water mark of 18.
Pelech is what scouts and coaches call a “defensive defenseman,” responsible more for keeping other teams’ top lines off the board than for posting gaudy point totals. But his newfound scoring touch is a result of increased ice time and his evolving role as Erie’s top defenseman.
“I think playing on the power play has been the biggest difference,” Pelech said. “I’m sure most of my points are from there. It’s easy when your power play is clicking. I’ve been making the right plays, moving the puck to the right people and the boys have been scoring quite a few goals.”
Those who watch Pelech play on a regular basis recognize his talent and future potential by the smart plays he makes with and without the puck. Eric Cairns, a member of the Islanders Hockey Development staff, scouted the 18-year-old defenseman prior to last summer’s draft, and has tracked his development since.
“The biggest difference between Adam last year and this year is the maturity of his game and the knowledge of what he is and what he’s good at,” Cairns said. “The bonus aspect to him playing solid defense is he’s actually putting up points. He’s doing it off simple, smart plays, like passes to the right guy at the right time. He’s making the most of a big opportunity in Erie, getting plenty of ice time, and using it well to further develop himself into a better all-around defenseman.”
Otters Head Coach Robbie Ftorek says the reason Pelech didn’t see regular power play time in the past wasn’t his lack of ability, but because the team relied on him more to shut down opponents at even strength and in penalty kill situations.
“He was always worn out from that,” Ftorek said. “This year I said, ‘The heck with it, I’m going to put him on the power play.’ That’s the only difference. He’s always had that ability, it’s just that we didn’t have the depth to be able to allow him to play there.”
On a young and developing Erie club, Pelech has been asked to carry a heavy load the past two seasons. In 2011-12, Pelech posted a minus-20 rating, but that was on a team that won only 10 games and surrendered twice as many goals (338) as it scored (169). While this year’s squad is much improved, it still sits in last place in the Western Conference standings at 7-15-1-3 as the season nears the midway point. Ftorek says the Toronto native’s minus-8 rating through 26 games is a result of him trying to do too much at times.
“He’s such a competitor that he’s going to try to do everything in his power to help the team," Ftorek said. "When we need a goal, he’s going to stand in late in the game and try to make it happen, and sometimes those things backfire.”
Ftorek says Pelech’s game reminds him of a long-time NHL defenseman he worked with during a stint as an assistant coach with New Jersey in the early 90s, whose career was just getting started at the time.
“I would say that he’s like an Eric Weinrich except better,” Ftorek said. “He was a shut down defenseman who kept things simple. He played against the best players. I think Pelly can play against the elite players. The only thing that people will say is that maybe he’s not fast enough. But speed is not always how fast you’re going, it’s how well you use the ice and how well you can get from point A to point B. And I see Pelly as a guy who plays very, very smart.”
Hockey Canada also took notice of Pelech’s ability, selecting him for their squad at the Canada-Russia Challenge in August. Pelech also suited up for the Ontario Hockey League squad that faced off with Russia for two games of the Subway Super Series earlier in November, and was the youngest Canadian blueliner selected for both teams. Of the 10 Canadian defensemen at the Canada-Russia Challenge, seven were first round NHL draft picks. Pelech was the only one drafted by an NHL club after the second round.
“Both experiences were just great,” Pelech said of playing international competition. “Whenever you go to events like the Canada-Russia Challenge or the Subway Super Series, it’s always filled with great people, great players and great coaches, so it’s always a really good experience and lots of fun.”
The 6’2, 194-pound defenseman has a solid network of people around him who have gone through the process of making it from junior hockey to the pro ranks, including his two older brothers, Matt and Michael. Matt was drafted by Calgary in the first round of the 2005 NHL Draft, while Michael was selected four years later in the sixth round by Los Angeles. Both are playing professionally – Matt is a member of the AHL’s Worcester Sharks and Michael plays for the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones.
“I spend my summers with both of my brothers, and we’re always on the ice together,” Pelech said. “Matt and I work out together, so we’re always talking about what it’s like at the next level. They’ve been really good role models for me. I definitely ask them for advice and they’ve helped me out since I was a little kid, just to get better.”
With two years of junior eligibility remaining, it will probably be some time before the youngest Pelech wears the orange and blue for the Islanders. Until then, learning to play in all situations in Erie, as well as the experience of playing on an international stage with the best in the world will only make him into more of a well-rounded player when he gets there.