Neal Pionk is soon to have a new contract, whether an arbitrator decides it or the Winnipeg Jets and the top-four defenseman come to terms before it.
Pionk has filed for salary arbitration and the hearing will take place Aug. 13 if the two sides can’t come to a deal by then. Regardless, the 26-year-old is due a big raise from the $3 million he made in each year of the two-year deal he signed after being acquired from the New York Rangers in 2019.
He has been a key member of the Jets’ d-corp since coming to Winnipeg, 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.
The price for quality defenders such as Pionk has never been higher and despite the salary cap being flat at $81.5 million, a number of top-four defensemen have cashed in big this summer. Here, we’ll take a look at some of those players, how they compare to Pionk, and how much Pionk may be poised to make.
On Aug. 6, Oilers’ alternate captain Darnell Nurse inked an eight-year, $74-million mega-contract worth an AAV of $9.25 million. Like Pionk, Nurse is 26, but still had one year left on a two-year deal he signed in February, 2020.
In 2020-21, the 6-foot-4, 220–pound defender had 16 goals and 20 assists and 36 points, four more than Pionk. A fixture on the Oilers’ top pairing, he was leaned upon heavily, skating nearly 26 minutes per game. Some believe Nurse’s new contract is an overpay, while THW’s own Jim Parsons had a different opinion.
Nurse is more experienced than Pionk, having skated in 406-career games to Pionk’s 226. While Pionk’s AAV and term wouldn’t be as high or as long, a multi-year extension for Pionk would represent — like the contract that will keep Nurse in Edmonton through 2029-30 — a bet on an already strong defenseman they hope still has room to improve.
Meanwhile, UFA left-hander Jamie Oleksiak found a new home with the NHL’s newest team, inking a five-year deal with the Seattle Kraken worth an AAV of $4.6 million after being selected by the team from the Dallas Stars in the Expansion Draft. Oleksiak was coming off a contract similar to Pionk’s, but it was a year longer and saw him paid approximately $800,000 less.
Pionk and Oleksiak are different players, to be sure. Oleksiak, at 6-foot-7 at 255 pounds, plays a more rugged, punishing game (though Pionk is certainly a tough customer for his size and doesn’t shy away from the physicality.) Oleksiak also isn’t nearly as offensively adept — he’s never recorded more than 17 points in any of his nine NHL seasons — and points get you paid, even if you’re a defenseman. Pionk can point to his own production as a reason his AAV should be substantially higher.
However, like Pionk, the veteran of 369 games is a consistent top-four performer who was coming off a strong season.
The third defenseman to cash in big this offseason was the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Zach Werenski, who signed a six-year deal with an AAV of $9.58 million.
The 6-foot-2, 218-pound Werenski is two years younger than Pionk, but has played in 109 more games. In his five NHL seasons, Werenski has recorded 65 goals and 124 assists in 335 games played.
He inked the lucrative deal despite a down season in which he recorded only seven goals and 13 assists for 20 points — his lowest single-season points total by 17 — but still logged big minutes (an average of 24:22 per game.)
If a player coming off that type of disappointing campaign can can cash in that handsomely, a player like Pionk can use that as even more leverage.
Pionk Well-Positioned to Cash in Big
As we can see, Pionk is well-positioned for a substantial payday, due both to his own strong play and the market for defensemen entering their prime being set.
On a long-term deal of five-plus years, Pionk is likely to snag at least $6 million annually, perhaps even $7 million-plus given the other contracts we’ve discussed. Pionk’s agent Pete Rutili will certainly look at Josh Morrissey’s $6.25 AAV and make the case his client is worth at least that; it’s a compelling case considering Pionk has actually been a stronger defender than Morrissey over the past two seasons.
Rusili will also point to the fact the Jets are essentially “buying” UFA years from Pionk like the Oilers did from Nurse (Pionk is first eligible to test the waters as a UFA in 2023.)
If Pionk gets $7-plus million, it will be nearly impossible for Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to also retain Andrew Copp, whose arbitration date is Aug. 26. Copp is coming off a career year and will likely be looking for a contract in the $5-million per year range, which Cheveldayoff wouldn’t be able to afford (he has only $10.2 million of cap space at his disposal.)
If a long-term deal can’t be reached and the arbitrator imposes a bridge deal to take Pionk to UFA status, he would command less — somewhere in the $4.5 to $.5. million range — but if he continues to put up excellent numbers and play a big role, he will only become even more expensive to re-sign.
Regardless, Pionk’s return to the fold will further bolster a blue line Cheveldayoff finally committed to improving this offseason after ignoring glaring issues for two years.
One day after acquiring Brendan Dillon from the Washington Capitals, he acquired Nate Schmidt from the Vancouver Canucks. In addition to the aforementioned Morrissey as a top-pairing fixture, the Jets also have a proven-top four option Dylan DeMelo, who was controversially left exposed to the Kraken in the Expansion Draft, but not selected.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.