Pionk proving to be valuable addition to Jets’ blue line

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A big part of this season’s success for the Winnipeg Jets has been getting a lot out of players who wouldn’t normally be put in tough situations. The one player who might exemplify this most is Neal Pionk.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/11/2019 (1163 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A big part of this season’s success for the Winnipeg Jets has been getting a lot out of players who wouldn’t normally be put in tough situations. The one player who might exemplify this most is Neal Pionk.

Acquired as part of the return in the trade that sent Jacob Trouba to Broadway, it would have been crazy to expect Pionk to take up the second-most minutes on the blue line, but that’s exactly how he’s being used.

Pionk played the second-most minutes on the New York Rangers’ blue line last year, but in doing so he was soundly eviscerated on the defensive end. So, he looked like a depth addition for the Jets to be put in a situation where he was most likely to succeed.

On the surface, Pionk’s performance this season looks pretty decent, with the Jets controlling 51.9 per cent of the shot attempts while he’s on the ice, and 50.6 per cent of the shots on goal. Those numbers rank third and second-best respectively on the Jets’ blue line among players with 100 or more minutes played at even-strength, but things get dicier when you look at shot quality.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk was the main piece obtained by Winnipeg in their trade of defenceman Jacob Trouba with the New York Rangers in June.

When you cut things down to the inner-slot, the Jets are controlling just 38 per cent of shots from the most dangerous area on the ice while Pionk is out there, the second-worst mark on the team — beaten only by Dmitry Kulikov.

Kulikov has been Pionk’s most common partner this season, so it makes sense that they’re producing similar on-ice results. There’s clearly something more to Pionk’s game if he’s being leaned on to play big minutes despite the Jets being severely outplayed in certain areas. Let’s break down Pionk’s on-ice results within the inner slot both overall, and over the last month, and see if we can figure out what’s going on.

Comparing Pionk to all of his peers on the Jets and separating things out from a percentage to give us the actual on-ice results on a per 60-minute basis, we can then create a total plus or minus delta that shows the actual difference the Jets are experiencing in inner-slot shots while each player is on the ice.

What should jump out at everyone right away is that nearly every Jets defenceman is in the negatives from this area. That has been the norm for the Jets all season long — they’re really struggling to control the net front and are really relying on Connor Hellebuyck to hold them in games.

The next thing to look at when examining Pionk, in particular, is that defensively, he doesn’t really stand out from the pack as worse than his peers. He and Kulikov have been used in relatively tough minutes this season, and while the defensive results aren’t stellar compared to the rest of the league, against his own teammates Pionk doesn’t stand out as a huge defensive liability.

Where Pionk’s differential from the inner-slot has been ravaged, especially in November, has been on offence.

Pionk and Kulikov as a pairing have been on the ice for less offence than any other duo the Jets employ, and while many might instinctively look at that pairing and say they stifle offence, defencemen don’t have a gigantic impact on getting shots from the inner-slot.

Outside of Roman Josi, defencemen don’t generally pinch far enough into the offensive zone at even-strength to get shots from the inner slot, so they have to rely on either passing the puck into that area, or playing a support role by gaining the zone, putting shots on net hoping for a rebound, stopping attempted clearances or passing the puck to teammates to create better chances down the line.

Even if a defenceman is good at all those things, they can be undone if they’re playing with teammates who can’t create chances out of those support plays. That doesn’t appear to be the problem for Pionk though, as his most common forward linemates are Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele. So, are Pionk and Kulikov really struggling at keeping plays alive and setting them up?

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk takes a shot at the net as Dallas Stars right wing Alexander Radulov defends in the second period.
Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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