Neal Pionk still isn’t a household name in most hockey circles — at least not yet.
But it’s impossible to ignore the impact the blueliner is having on the Winnipeg Jets‘ season.
On a night where Pierre-Luc Dubois was clearly the star of the show, as he scored twice and added an assist in his return to the lineup from a muscle injury that kept him out for four games, there was Pionk, ripping home a blistering slapshot on the power play that put the Jets up 3-2 in the third period of the 4-3 overtime victory over the Vancouver Canucks.
Despite a reduction in power-play time and subsequent move to the second unit, Pionk is up to three goals and 15 points in 18 games.
Those numbers are good enough to leave him tied for sixth in the NHL among defencemen — and the only guys with more points from the back end than Pionk are Quinn Hughes, Jeff Petry, Darnell Nurse, Tyson Barrie and Morgan Rielly.
Even if you want to grade on the curve because the art of defending has occasionally been optional in the North Division to this point in the season, it’s still pretty heady company for Pionk to be keeping.
The totals are even more impressive when you consider that Pionk is often being used in a shutdown role alongside Derek Forbort and that only four of those 15 points have come with the man advantage.
Pionk is second on the Jets in hits (behind Adam Lowry) and third in blocked shots (behind Forbort and Josh Morrissey), while averaging 22:32 of ice time per game (second behind Morrissey).
His compete level has been on full display, and Pionk turned plenty of heads last week with his willingness to engage with both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in games against the Edmonton Oilers.
Asked about Pionk’s performance and production after Sunday’s game, Jets captain Blake Wheeler assured the questioner that he’s highly valued by his teammates for all that he brings to the table.
“Well, what about last year? I think he led our team in power-play points last year. He’s just an awesome hockey player,” said Wheeler.
“A guy you might consider undersized, but he certainly doesn’t play undersized. I mean, you guys have seen him. He will run into anyone at full speed, he makes incredible plays with the puck, and he has shown an ability to bury an open opportunity.
“The more opportunities we give a guy like him, the more success we are going to have.”
While on the top power-play unit last season, Pionk showed an ability to get his shot through, but it wasn’t viewed as being as powerful or potent as either Trouba’s or Dustin Byfuglien’s.
That’s probably still the case, but one can’t help but notice Pionk has unloaded several howitzers of late — some added velocity seems to be behind those point blasts.
As it stands right now, Jets head coach Paul Maurice views Pionk’s willingness to unload that shot as a valuable asset on a second unit that usually sees less than a minute of time during a full power play.
“It’s really important. The (Mark) Scheifele unit will take a minute or a minute and 15 quite often, so these guys get 45 seconds, so you need somebody that’s willing to shoot the puck,” said Maurice.
“And especially from the top if we can. If you spend your last 45 just working it around the outside, you never get anything.
“So every time he does that, it (gets) a little more reinforced, get (the puck) up top and lets him pound these things. If he can’t, he’s going to slide it over to (Nikolaj Ehlers) and now (Dubois) and they’re going to get it to the net.
“It sets the right mentality for that second unit power play if you want to call it that. With the shorter time, the pucks have to get heated up and get to the net and he can do it.”
As Wheeler mentioned, Pionk did lead the Jets in power-play points last season (with 25 in 71 games) and that’s one of the reasons you might also see him get another shot on the top unit at some point.
Maurice has spoken often about wanting to have two productive units and this current composition isn’t as much about creating balance, but about finding the pieces that fit and putting people in places they’re most comfortable with.
It’s natural for Jets fans to long for the days when this group had a top-five power play in terms of efficiency for consecutive seasons.
Currently, the Jets are closer to the middle of the pack (13th at 22.8 per cent) than the top five, but let’s not forget this is a work in progress.
The combination of Dubois and the departed Patrik Laine have been available to the Jets for four of those 18 games played to date — and Dubois is still getting acclimated, Sunday’s dominant showing notwithstanding.
So while there’s obvious room for improvement and some internal options to consider, there’s also plenty of potential for growth as the roles on those power-play units become clearly defined.
We live in an instant gratification society, where immediate results are not only requested but expected.
Which brings us right back to Pionk, whose arrival in the deal with the New York Rangers for Jacob Trouba in June of 2019 wasn’t exactly met with a high approval rating from the fanbase.
Instead of panning the trade these days, the narrative has shifted to how valuable Pionk has become and how much money might be due in his next contract.
As a pending restricted free agent, Pionk probably isn’t going to match what Trouba got from the Rangers (eight years, $64 million), but he’s going to be due a substantial raise nonetheless.
Doubling the $3-million bridge deal he’s currently playing on certainly isn’t out of the question given how well he’s playing right now.
Pionk has quietly become one of the foundational pieces the Jets are going to build around on the back end — and he will have earned every penny that he’s going to receive, provided he sustains this current level of play.
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