Last season, it was Andrew Copp who had a breakout performance and broke career highs. This season, it seems as if Neal Pionk is on the same path. He finished the 2020-21 season with 32 points (three goals, 29 assists) in 54 games, which includes 10 power-play points. So far this season, he has 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 19 games.
One noticeable change to his game this season is his ability to get shots on net. Currently, he has 42 shots on goal and possesses a 52.5 percent shots through percentage (SThr%), an increase from last season’s 50.2 percent. Shots through percentage is the calculation of a player’s ability to get a shot on net without being blocked or redirected. With more shots, he is getting more chances to get his name on the scoresheet. He is well on his way to surpassing his point totals from last season, and if he keeps his game on the same rhythm, he should be able to set a new career high in points.
The Jets acquired the undrafted Omaha, Nebraska, native from the New York Rangers almost three years ago, and he has since proven to be a perfect fit. His contributions on the blue line have been outstanding since arriving in Winnipeg, where he has racked up 87 points in 137 games. The Jets and Pionk agreed to a four-year, $23.5 million contract extension on Aug. 21.
Pionk’s Junkyard Dog Mentality
Despite his offensive prowess, Pionk also blocked 74 shots last season and recorded 137 hits. His junkyard dog mentality is infectious, and he’s not afraid of physical confrontation or putting his body on the line to block a shot. His defensive game is on the rise, and as he continues to develop, he will only be able to unlock more potential. Pionk possesses the qualities to be a top-2 defender in the NHL. The offseason additions of Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt not only mean that he has more responsibilities as he rises through the ranks, but they also mean he can flourish with his style.
“Neal plays an exceptionally physical, aggressive game for not a big man. So, what we were hopeful for over the course of the season is that he can play as intensely, and possibly more intensely, than he played last year because he doesn’t have to spend two more minutes in his end of the ice.”Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice
Pionk has taken his game to a new level already this season, and he currently has 25 shot blocks and 56 hits. Although he is not a fighter in any sense of the word, we saw him stand up for Eric Comrie recently when the Vancouver Canucks played them. The Canucks’ Juho Lammikko drove the net hard down the middle and collided with Comrie, who was thrown to the ice.
Pionk stepped in and roughed up Lammikko immediately, leading to a small scrum around the net. When it comes to goalies, there is a code, and he adhered to it. He is already increasing his physical play this season, so this should only lead to him competing in more challenging situations.
Future Norris Nominee?
In addition to being a fan favourite and a rising leader, Pionk has the tools he needs to gain recognition amongst the league’s best defenders. The James Norris Memorial Trophy, or simply the Norris Trophy, which is awarded to the top defenceman in the NHL, went to New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox last season. Perhaps this season, or sometime in the near future, he will be considered for nomination. Recent Norris Trophy winners include Duncan Keith, Brent Burns, Mark Giordano, Victor Hedman, and Erik Karlsson, to name a few. The majority of these players, at one time or another, were captains and leaders. Pionk has what it takes to get into that mix, and as long as he remains on the development path that he is currently on, the Jets will be able to harness all of that potential.
With a solid start to the season already for Pionk, his confidence will only continue to rise as the season progresses. Expect him to bring his A-game every night he steps on the ice, as he looks to smash his career highs that were set in the 2019-20 season when he registered 45 points (six goals, 39 assists) in 71 games.
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.