ANALYSIS: Pionk’s performance an encouraging sign for Winnipeg Jets’ defence

Following Tuesday night’s Winnipeg Jets game, it was the highlight-reel spinorama from Neal Pionk that would have dominated the water cooler discussion.

And for good reason.

This move — the one that left St. Louis Blues forward Jordan Kyrou fishing for the puck and coming up empty — requires an enormous amount of confidence.

It left the crowd to ooh and ah and eventually roar after Pionk’s seeing-eye shot made its way through traffic and caromed in off the pants of Blues defenceman Marco Scandella and into the net past Jordan Binnington to tie the game just past the midway point of the second period.

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When the red light goes on at the end of the play, a head coach usually will simply applaud.

But the question remained, up until that point, what was the level of concern when Pionk faked his shot, spun to the outside on his backhand and ultimately created a shooting lane for himself?

“I’ve got no problem with that play. I’d much rather have a confident defenceman back there than somebody knuckling it back around the boards,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice.

“Let me rephrase that. If any of the players were casual players that were doing that … didn’t throw a check, didn’t block a shot, didn’t break a sweat all night and now we’re going to throw a spinorama at the blue line? No, you’re not very happy with that. That’s casual. But he’s the opposite, man, so if he feels he can pull it off, go get it.”

Maurice wasn’t the only person who was impressed.

Jets captain Blake Wheeler also gave his stamp of approval during his post-game media session when asked about the Pionk play.

“That’s something he works on, being dynamic at the blue line,” said Wheeler, who had an assist to hit a milestone of 700 points with the Jets-Atlanta Thrashers organization.

“I thought our D-corps was very dynamic back there. And we had quite a few opportunities that were tipped just wide or he didn’t see that we missed, but that was a special play and a big one for us at a big moment to bring us back into the game.”

In the end, the Jets lost 3-2.

Pionk has been the author of numerous big moments since joining the Jets in the trade with the New York Rangers for Jacob Trouba.

He’s been a highly-productive player (11 goals, 87 points in 137 games since the deal) and he’s also become a fan favourite because of his junkyard dog mentality, which includes a willingness to throw his weight around.

Some of the fiercest battles for Pionk last season came against Edmonton Oilers centre and reigning Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid.

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“This guy is a high operator. He’s always involved in the play, whether it’s in our end or in their end,” said Maurice.

“His compete level is very, very high. He’s got a good offensive feel and a good skill set and that’s probably why we’ve gone away from three forwards in overtime.

“He’s been very, very good for us.”

The Jets are going to need Pionk to continue to be very good for them.

Although his play is definitely on the rise, there were some uneven moments for Pionk through the first nine games — which is not uncommon for someone adjusting to a new defence partner, not to mention someone who signed a lucrative long-term contract in the offseason as a restricted free agent.

It’s not as though Pionk was struggling mightily, but given the high level of play he’d established through his first two seasons with the Jets, the organization has come to rely on him to be one of the leaders on the back end.

That hasn’t changed after the arrival of Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt.

Both Pionk and Dillon have talked about being undrafted free agents that needed to earn everything they’ve got at the NHL level and that ability to push for more is one of the reasons the pairing is expected to be a successful one.

The partnership is both built on trust and the internal motivation to continue to show what they have done to this point – and ultimately, what they want to accomplish moving forward.

One of the tangible benefits for the Jets this season with the upgrades in personnel has meant spending less time in the defensive zone.

“Neal plays an exceptionally physical, aggressive game for not a big man,” said Maurice. “So what we were hopeful for over the course of the season is that he can play as intensely and possibly more intensely than he played last year because he doesn’t have to spend two more minutes in his end of the ice.”

Provided things work out the way Maurice envisions, that would allow Pionk with ample opportunity to put his offensive skills on display — and potentially lead to a few more spinoramas.

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

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