‘It was kind of embarrassing’ Pionk takes ownership for his role in Jets’ disappointing season
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There was no sugar coating, no soft pedalling from Neal Pionk when asked for his thoughts on the Winnipeg Jets’ soon-to-be completed season, one that won’t include a sniff of the playoffs.
Instead, the 26-year-old defenceman stepped into his answer like a blistering one-timer from the point.
“Let’s be honest, it was kind of embarrassing what we did this year,” Pionk said Tuesday following his team’s practice at Canada Life Centre. “We had a really good roster and totally underachieved.”
There may be three games left in the regular season, including a Wednesday night visit from the Philadelphia Flyers. But the autopsy of the 2021-22 campaign is already underway. And Pionk stood over the patient on the gurney, scalpel in hand, and started cutting deep.
“Let’s be honest, it was kind of embarrassing what we did this year.” – Neal Pionk
“Disappointing, underachieving, I don’t know if it was one specific area. It was almost every area,” Pionk continued. “It starts by looking in the mirror, too. I look at myself, I look at my game as disappointing and underachieving like I just said. If everyone goes into the summer with that mindset, a little self-evaluation, looking in the mirror, and bringing a better attitude and a better mindset to training camp next year, we’ll start on a better foot.”
Winnipeg (36-32-11) will miss the playoffs for the seventh time in 11 seasons since since the NHL returned to town. Considering the lofty expectations before the year began, this is certainly the most disappointing of them all.
Pionk said it’s going to leave a mark.
“When I look in the mirror, I’m embarrassed,” said Pionk, whose up-and-down year included getting suspended two games for kneeing Toronto’s Rasmus Sandin and then suffering a concussion after being kneed in the head by Jason Spezza during the same early December game. His play took a notable dip following his return, with his trademark tenacity and aggression replaced by a more hesitant, cautious player.
Interim coach Dave Lowry appreciated the honestly and candour from one of the core members of his club.
“Well I think that is one player taking ownership in our season,” Lowry said. “We’re not going to run and hide from this. We know that we’re going to have to be better. The biggest thing is it has to start within, and it has to start with self-reflection and individuals taking ownership of where we are.”
Big decisions will have to be made this summer on where the Jets go from here. Do they consider blowing it up as part of a major rebuild, or go with making more minor adjustments with the hopes there is still enough good pieces here to contend? In some ways, the situation isn’t unlike what the Calgary Flames went through last year, when they fell far short of expectations despite a solid roster on paper, fired their coach mid-season, brought in Darryl Sutter and now, with mostly the same group intact, are among the NHL’s powerhouses.
“The big thing is you look at their top players and how they came back,” said Lowry.
“They’ve got two guys on their top line with 100 points. They’ve got potentially three 40-goal scorers. You look at their play without the puck and the improvements they’ve made in their game. And that is something where I’ve played under Darryl, I’ve worked under Darryl, I know that that is one of his demands.
“Sometimes it takes time to get everything in place. They seem to be working, they seem to understand there’s a certain way to play. You’re still going to get your points, you’re still going to score your goals, but there’s a certain way to play to win hockey games,” added Lowry.
The Jets have shown glimpses of that this year, including Sunday’s impressive 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche that snapped a four-game losing streak. But inconsistency has been a major issue.
“We have a heck of a roster. We have world-class players,” Pionk said. “Come in with a different mindset, a better attitude, and get started off on the right foot. You lose the first three games of the year, it puts you in a hole right away and then you’re kind of chasing the rest of the time. You lose your confidence right off the start, too. We get off to a good start next year, I think we can go pretty far.”
You lose the first three games of the year, it puts you in a hole right away and then you’re kind of chasing the rest of the time.” – Neal Pionk
Pionk had a bit of his snarl back the other night after taking a heavy hit from Avalanche forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel which left him bleeding from a cut on his nose.
“I didn’t know my nose could get any bigger,” he joked.
Lowry suggested that was the turning point in the game, with Pionk and several of his teammates suddenly playing angry.
“There’s times we could have used more of that,” Pionk admitted. “It’s tough during the dog days, when you’re playing 17 games in a month or 18 games in a month but, at the same time, that’s not really an excuse because other teams are doing the same thing. They’re playing a lot of games in a few days so, if we can find that competitive edge, I think it will help us for the next year and years to come.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.