Back in June of 2019, the Winnipeg Jets made a massive trade sending star defensemen Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers in exchange for Neal Pionk and a 20th-overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The Jets would go on to use that 20th-overall pick to select Finnish defensemen, Ville Heinola. Pionk was 23 at the time, coming off his first full season with the Rangers, where he had 26 points (six goals, 20 assists) in 73 games. He has spent the last two seasons with the Jets, where he is continuously getting better.
When Neal Pionk first came to the Winnipeg Jets during the 2019-20 regular season, there was only so much that head coach Paul Maurice knew about the undrafted defenseman. A product of Omaha, Nebraska, he excelled in the USHL for the Sioux City Musketeers and was even named the USHL Defenseman of the Year in 2014-15, totaling 48 points in 53 games. Following his tenure at Sioux City, he would attend the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he would go on to have a season for the books in 2016-17.
During that year, Pionk would help the Bulldogs capture the NCAA (NCHC) Championship, while also being named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team and the NCAA Second All-Star Team putting up 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in 42 games. Ultimately, despite being undrafted, he had an attractive resume that would help him get noticed by the New York Rangers, and on May 1st, 2015 he signed his entry-level contract (ELC) with New York.
When you watch Pionk play, one of the first things you can notice is how smooth he can move the puck, that’s his specialty. A right-handed defenseman, he is a fantastic skater who can see the ice from all angles and can bury one-timers when given the chance. He exceeded expectation’s in his first season with the Jets, recording 26 points in 73 games while holding a +10 in the +/- column.
Of course, due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, the NHL season came to a halt back in April of 2020. Play resumed in August of 2020 where the Jets played the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 1987 Smythe Division Semifinals. The 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 recorded two assists in four playoff games with the Jets. I think it’s important to point out that last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs was the first time he played in the postseason since entering the NHL in 2017-18.
What if We Had a Full Season?
If you look at the Jets statistics, Pionk is currently ranked 6th among all Jets’ players for points on the season and, is ranked 14th among all NHL defensemen. As of today, he sits at 29 points (three goals, 26 assists) in 44 games and one has to ask, that if we did not have a shortened season, could he pass his career-high of 45 points? Right now, he is averaging 0.66 points per game, and in an 82 game season, that roughly translates to 54 points on the year. Those are impressive numbers, and I believe he is only going to improve given his career trajectory.
Pionk had a great showing on the power-play last season, recording 25 points and solidifying himself as a power-play specialist. Currently, he sits on the second power-play unit, where he has seen a reduction in ice time but has managed to contribute ten points.
We still have 12 games left in the season and then we transition into the playoffs. Given Pionk’s play this year, I expect him to have a big influence on the Jets’ blue line come playoff time. Throughout the last couple of seasons, he has got stronger, which has helped him physically in becoming a better defender in his own end. Last season, he even tallied up 165 hits, a bit of a jump compared to the 138 hits the previous year in New York.
Is He Underrated?
I would argue that Pionk is one of the most underrated defensemen in the entire league when you compare his stats to some of the other top-four defensemen around the NHL. Whether it be five-on-five, or on the power-play, his numbers are up there with the likes of John Carlson, Drew Doughty, and Morgan Rielly-who are all superstar caliber defensemen.
Pionk has the chance to test free agency come July 1 as he is a restricted free agent. Although, I would expect the Jets to re-sign him as-soon-as-possible. If he continues this type of play, he could become a top-two defenseman with Josh Morrissey and the Jets can mold their defense-core around them giving him endless opportunities. With the likes of Heinola, Logan Stanley, Dylan Samberg, and Leon Gawanke all making strides, the Jets’ have a solid defense foundation for the next few years.
We will see how the rest of this season-post season plays out and I am sure I will be revisiting this topic in the summer.