The Winnipeg Jets’ 2020-21 season was full of ups and downs and ended with a second-round sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. In this series, we’ll look back on the season, player by player, and grade their individual performances with an eye toward their future with the team.
Since being acquired in a trade for Jacob Trouba in 2019, Neal Pionk has slowly but surely won the hearts of Jets fans. Pionk excelled in nearly every category in 2019-20. Before the COVID-19 Pandemic ended the regular season, he had 45 points in 71 games in his first season with the Jets.
The 25-year-old entered his second season with the Jets this past season, looking to make an even bigger impact on the ice. He finished the 2020-21 season with 32 points in 54 games as a plus-10. As a result, he solidified himself as a legitimate top-4 defenceman, showing why he was not only one of the top defenders on the Jets but also in the entire league.
Arguably His Best Season to Date
Pionk’s offensive talents were widely displayed throughout the season. Had the NHL been able to play out a full 82-game schedule, one has to wonder if he could have hit 50 points. Pionk displays smooth skating abilities and superb puck handling skills. He can see the ice from all angles, and, as we’ve seen, he is not afraid to make a jump to the offensive zone to get on the scoresheet. He is a power-play specialist. He recorded 25 points on the man advantage last season and put up 10 points this season while quarterbacking the second power-play unit. His shot is hard and fairly accurate if, given a chance, he will bury one-timers. Over the last couple of seasons, he has gained a lot of confidence in the offensive zone, which is crucial to his development.
Pionk is also solid in his own end. He is never afraid to lay the body on the line to block a shot or make a hit. He was well on his way to breaking his career-high of 98 blocked shots, which was set in the 2018-19 season with the New York Rangers. Pionk ended the year with 74 blocked shots and 137 hits.
During the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Pionk entered his first postseason since entering the NHL in 2017. The Calgary Flames would go on to win the best-of-5 series 3-1 and would eliminate the Jets from the playoffs, a disappointing end to the long-drawn-out season. Pionk finished with two assists in four games but proved to have confidence which carried over this year.
Fast forward to 2021, the Jets played the Edmonton Oilers in the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Jets swept the Oilers in four games, Pionk registered three assists and played a crucial role for the team. During Game 4, Pionk’s ice time was an astounding 40:08, a remarkable stat. He also assisted on Kyle Connor’s game-winner in the third overtime when he fed Connor a stretch pass. During the Second Round, the Jets were unfortunately dismantled and swept in four games by the Montreal Canadiens. Pionk had just one assist in that series.
“(Pionk) made a great play. He was on McDavid there, just to get his stick on it and whack it up the boards and I saw it coming and tried to skate as fast as I can,” said Connor. “It’s our mentality, the whole overtime just get pucks to the net so just shot that one and, yeah, that one feels pretty good.”
The Future of Neal Pionk
Pionk is a restricted free agent this year, but there should be zero issues during contract negotiations between the Jets and Pionk after an impressive couple of seasons. If he continues this type of play, he could become a top-two defenceman with Josh Morrissey. The Jets’ can mold their defensive core around them, giving him plenty of opportunities.
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While defense is an issue with the Jets, Pionk will be a part of that defense core for years to come. He has already shown his worth and made good impressions on head coach Paul Maurice. As Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg look for full-time roles next season, Pionk will have more responsibilities to cope with.
Overall Grade: A
Born and raised in Kamloops B.C. and a die-hard fan of the Kamloops Blazers, hockey has always been a part of his life. Now, Colton is exploring the sports media world and looking to make it a career. He currently covers the Winnipeg Jets, as well as contributes to World Juniors, and draft-related content. He is co-host of the WesternCentric Podcast, which revolves around the WHL.