Jets’ Defense Set for Success After Pionk Signing

After re-signing Neal Pionk, the Winnipeg Jets blue line is locked and loaded for 2020-21 and beyond.

Jets and Pionk Avoid Arbitration

The Jets inked the restricted free agent Pionk to a four-year deal with an average annual value of $5.875 million on Aug. 11, avoiding arbitration that was set for Aug. 13.

The 26-year-old has been a key member of the Jets’ d-corp since coming to Winnipeg in 2019, recording nine goals and 68 assists for 77 points in 125 games, dishing out 302 hits, and skating an average of 22:46. Last season, he led all Jets’ defensemen in points with 32 and hits with 137 and was second only to Josh Morrissey in ice time. He’s a mainstay on the Jets’ power play and has taken on a leadership role despite not being an elder statesman.

Neal Pionk Winnipeg Jets
Pionk has been a key member of the Jets’ defensive corp for the past two season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Pionk’s strong play has translated into a near doubling of the $3 million salary he was being paid on a two-year deal, and his new AAV is well in line with what this author projected he would get on a longer-term contract.

Related: Jets’ Pionk Poised for a Big Payday

The new deal will keep Pionk — who is only entering his prime — with the Jets through the 2024-25 season, after which he will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time.

Pionk’s AAV Comes in Below Other Top-Four Defenders

Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff can add Pionk the lengthy list of players he’s managed to hash out team-friendly deals with at the helm. Just a few others he’s convinced to commit long-term to Winnipeg for affordable prices — despite Winnipeg not being in the upper ranks of attractive NHL cities to play in — include Nikolaj Ehlers, Connor Hellebuyck, and Mark Scheifele.

Getting Pionk for under $6 million per year is quite the feat, given how much top-four defensemen around the league have commanded this offseason: the Edmonton Oilers’ Darnell Nurse inked an eight-year mega-contract worth an AAV of $9.25 million, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Zach Werenski signed a six-year deal with an AAV of $9.58 million despite a down season, and Dougie Hamilton’s new seven-year deal with the New Jersey Devils carries an AAV of $9 million.

Zach Werenski Columbus Blue Jackets
Pionk’s AAV comes well below other top-four defensemen who also signed new deals recently, such as Zach Werenski, who is set to make $9.58 million per season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Jets now have a maximum of $4 million to re-sign Andrew Copp, who had a career year and is the Jets’ lone remaining RFA. It’s still going to be tough for Cheveldayoff to retain Copp — a long-term deal is likely out of the question right now — but it’s not impossible as it would have been if Pionk got $6.5 to $7 million.

Jets Defense Will Be Tough to Face for Foreseeable Future

After coping with a patchwork blue line for the past two seasons after the 2019 mass exodus that saw Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba all depart, the Jets’ defensive corps looks to be a strength for the foreseeable future.

Over the past month, Cheveldayoff finally made some significant moves. He acquired the big-bodied Brendan Dillon from the Washington Capitals on July 26, and one day later, acquired the offensively-adept Nate Schmidt from the Vancouver Canucks.

Related: Jets Continue to Improve Defensive Corp with Schmidt Trade

Remarkably, he did that without sacrificing a roster player, getting Dillon in exchange for two second-round picks and getting Schmidt for only a 2022 third-rounder.

Both sides of the Jets’ defense are now stacked, with Pionk joining Dylan DeMelo and Schmidt on the right side, and Dillon joining Morrissey and Logan Stanley on the left side. Head coach Paul Maurice has several options of how he can deploy this sudden influx of back-end talent.

The Jets have a bevy of weapons at forward and a Vezina-winning goaltender in Hellebuyck, but their defense’s propensity for giving up too many high-danger scoring chances has been the main thing holding them back from being more than a team on the playoff bubble. It shouldn’t hold them back anymore: they finally have the d-corp they need to be a true Stanley Cup contender.