Behind Mikael Backlund, Matt Pelech is the Flames prospect closest to make the leap to the big leagues. In fact, some could argue after three years in the minors, Pelech is closer to NHL ready than the young Swede. A first round choice from Calgary’s disastrous 2005 draft, Pelech has been held back by depth and injuries. He’ll turn 23 years old this September and is nearing the critical point when a prospect goes from "viable future NHLer" to "fringe player". The obstacles facing him at this point, however, aren’t trivial.
Pelech was the 41st ranked NA skater in his draft season. He fell down the lists a bit due to an injury plagued season that limited him to just 31 games. Apparently the Flames felt they were getting an undervalued skater, because they chose him well outside of his consensus rank. Pelech continued to battle injuries throughout his tenure in the OHL – the most games he played in a single season was 64 during his rookie season.
It’s been a similar script for Pelech in the AHL. He appeared in 77 contests his first year, 59 his second and just 42 last season due to a pinched nerve in his neck. He did, however, manage career highs in goals (2), points (10) and plus minus (+7), although the value of a defense-first rearguard isn’t captured by the counting stats. Like Regehr, Pelech’s performance is measured in the quality of opposition and the amount of minutes he plays. None of which are available due to the limited nature of AHL stats records.
Pelech appeared in 5 NHL games in 2008-09 when the Flames were battling injuries at the end of the season. He averaged more than 15 minutes in three of the contests, including twice breaking the 17 minute mark. He looked relatively comfortable during his cup of coffee, even going +3 in his final appearance (although it was a game versus the woeful Edmonton Oilers, many of whom had alrady checked out for the year). Pelech has frequently looked like a man against boys to my eyes whenever I’ve seen him live against other prospects. And he is, in many ways, now five years removed from his draft year. His seemingly slow progress made me wonder what the average age of similar-type players is in the current NHL. Conventional wisdom holds that most shut-down defenders take more time to develop into their roles, but it was something I wanted to investigate nonetheless.
The chart shows Pelech’s comparables from last year (all data from www.behindthenet.ca). I limited the sample to guys who played in 50+ games and at least 10 minutes of ES ice per night. I also only looked at guys who produced points at the bottom-end range.
The "age" column shows the age at which each player broke into the league more or less for good. As you can see, the data is actually somewhat encouraging – the mean rookie age for this sample was 22.7, or right about where Pelech is now. Obviously many of the elite guys made the show at a younger age (Bouwmeester, Regehr, Foote) but even if Pelech turned out to be a Greg Zenon or Colin White, the org would no doubt count that as a "win". This at least suggests that Pelech isn’t as far behind in his development as one may assume.
Pelech’s path to the big league is blocked by more than just a history of injury though. The Flames currently boasts no less than 6 NHL defenseman on the roster (Regehr, Bouwmeester, Pardy, Giordano, Staios, Sarich) plus RFA Ian White who may or may not be retained. Should White be re-signed (and the likes of Sarich and Staios stick around), it will take a something akin to a long-term injury to one of the encumbants for Pelech to climb his way over all that established, expensive, veteran depth.
The guy Pelech is most likely to usurp is Adam Pardy. Pardy is the cheapest player on the Flames blueline and arguably has the lowest ceiling (ignoring the fact that Staios is on the downslope of his career for a moment). The Flames under Sutter have shown a willingness to move apparently "stalled" youngsters the last few years (Boyd and Kobasew srping to mind) and it wouldn’t much surprise me this summer if Sutter decides to bet on Pelech over Pardy and moves the older guy for a mid-round draft pick. The fact that Pelech may no longer be waiver exempt (he’s also an RFA this year now that his ELC has expired) will probably play a role in that decision as well.