A trio of Winnipeg Jets are proving it’s not when your name is called — or even if it’s called at all — during an NHL Draft that dictates whether you’ll be a successful NHL player.
While the Jets have 11 former first-round picks on their current roster — many of whom are key contributors — they also have three undrafted players who are just as integral.
Pionk Turning Heads Since 2019 Trade
A slick spin-o-rama snapshot goal Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues is perhaps the perfect illustration of how far Neal Pionk has come and how much trust he’s gained in his three seasons in Winnipeg.
Pionk has been a revelation since joining the Jets after being acquired in a 2019 trade with the New York Rangers that sent Jacob Trouba the other way. A player with an intoxicating mix of offensive skill, defensive acumen, and physicality, he has become a top-four mainstay and a big part of the Jets’ revamped blue line.
In his first season with the Jets, Pionk set new season highs in assists (39) and points (45). He then recorded three goals and 29 assists for 32 points in the 56-game 2020-21 season. He has two goals and eight assists already in 2021-22.
That’s not too shabby for a player who didn’t take the regular route to the NHL. The Minnesotan spent three seasons in the United States Hockey League before two season with the NCAA’s University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs before finally inking an NHL contract with the Rangers in 2017 as a 21 year old.
Head coach Paul Maurice recently described Pionk as “an exceptional all-around defenceman — because his defensive game is good enough to call him a very good defender. And his points say that he’s an offensive producer.”
He’s gained the trust of his head coach, and also the trust of the fans — many of whom decried the trade as truly terrible and Pionk as poor return for the 10th-overall pick Trouba due to the former’s poor analytics and advanced stats.
But that was then — after his first full NHL season — and this is now. Pionk has 11 goals and and 76 assists for 87 points in 138 Jets games, has skated an average of 22:38, and has a plus-15 rating.
He has clearly outperformed the man he was swapped for. Since heading to the Big Apple, Trouba has recorded nine goals and 33 assists for 42 points in 121 games, has skated an average of 22:12, and has a minus-10 rating.
Pionk also brings all he does to the table for a relatively modest $5.875 million AAV, well below Trouba’s $8 million AAV.
Dillon Filling Void With Big-Bodied Presence
At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, it’s hard to believe Brenden Dillon was once a 5-foot-2 teen who was passed over in the Western Hockey League Draft.
He’s grown since then, of course, in stature and skill, despite his road to the NHL not being an easy one. After spending four seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds and signing with the Dallas Stars at age 21, he played more than 100 games in the AHL before finally getting a chance at meaningful NHL work in 2012-13.
In the near decade that’s followed, he has been a formidable foe and a physical force to be reckoned with. In 667 career games with the Stars, San Jose Sharks, Washington Capitals, and now the Jets, he has dished out 1558 hits, blocked nearly 900 shots, and has a stellar plus-31 rating. He also has 24 goals and 111 assists for 135 points.
After being acquired from the Capitals this past summer for a pair of second-round picks, Dillon has brought much-needed experience and a rough-and-tumble, high-octane presence the Jets were sorely lacking in both 2019-20 and 2020-21. His presence will be welcome on the blue line through 2023-24 — when his current contract expires — and perhaps beyond.
Schmidt Providing High-End Skill, High-End Character
Nate Schmidt is slick with the puck and slick with a quip, with his larger-than-life, gregarious personality showing in spades on and off the ice.
Acquired a day after Dillon in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks, the 30-year-old left-hander brings the team versatility due to his ability to play on the right side, which he currently does on the top pairing with Josh Morrissey to his left. He has also been key to the Jets’ power play.
Schmidt has one goal and nine assists this season already, is a plus-eight, and has skated an average of 22:06. His infectious and playful nature is a good foil for players such as Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, who are super serious, and he’s already provided many insightful answers on a number of topics during media availabilities, including on centre Pierre-Luc Dubois’ strong start.
A Minnesotan like Pionk, Schmidt also played in the USHL before spending three seasons with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. He finally turned pro when the Capitals signed him to a two-year deal in 2013.
Schmidt brought his solid skating skills, good breakout instincts, and ability to counterattack to the Caps through 2016-17, and then to the Vegas Golden Knights, who claimed him in the 2017 Expansion Draft after he was left exposed.
After three seasons with the Golden Knights, he was traded to the Canucks in 2020 for just a third-round pick despite seeming to be in the Golden Knights’ long-term plans — he’d inked a six-year extension in 2018.
After a down season with the Canucks, they dumped Schmidt’s salary by trading him — once again for just a third-rounder — to the Jets.
While he’s bounced around and other teams haven’t held him in high regard, it’s their loss and the Jets’ gain. His value to Paul Maurice and company far exceed what GM Kevin Cheveldayoff gave up to get him.
No Ego, Amigo
Pionk, Dillon, and Schmidt have had nothing handed to them and have earned everything they’ve gotten. Even at the pro level, they haven’t always been treated with the utmost respect by their teams or fans, but they keep coming to the rink every day and showing their worth.
Their workmanlike attitudes and lack of ego is be an example every Jet would be well advised to follow, whether they were a top prospect or not.
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.