Opinion

There's no warrant for his arrest in New York, but evidence continues to pile up: Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is guilty of grand larceny when it comes to the 2019 Jacob Trouba trade.

Just how badly might he have fleeced the Rangers?

Trouba, who turns 27 next week, has just two assists through 13 games (before last night's action) with the Broadway Blueshirts year this season, after putting up only 27 points in 70 games in 2019-20.

Edmonton's Kailer Yamamoto is checked by Neal Pionk during the second period Monday.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Edmonton's Kailer Yamamoto is checked by Neal Pionk during the second period Monday.

On the Rangers second pairing, he is in the second year of a mammoth seven-year deal that pays him US$8 million annually — which sticks out like a sore thumb given the indefinite state of a flat NHL salary cap.

There's no doubt Trouba (who spent the first six NHL seasons of his career in Winnipeg) is a still a fine defenceman, albeit an overpaid one by today's standards, who likely has already hit his ceiling on a rebuilding club that entered play Tuesday with a 4-6-3 record.

This isn't meant to disparage his play, so much as it is to contrast it with what the Jets got in return for a guy who wasn't going to re-sign long-term and made his desire for a change of scenery well-known.

Cheveldayoff was boxed into a corner — and made off like a bandit.

There's no doubt New York Rangers' Jacob Trouba (8) is a still a fine defenceman, albeit an overpaid one by today's standards.

BRUCE BENNETT / POOL / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

There's no doubt New York Rangers' Jacob Trouba (8) is a still a fine defenceman, albeit an overpaid one by today's standards.

Let's start with 25-year-old defenceman Neal Pionk, who is a bargain at US$3 million this season for a 9-5-1 Jets team currently holding down a playoff spot in the Canadian division.

With one goal and 11 assists in 15 games, only five NHL blue-liners currently have more points thus far. Pionk put up 45 points in 71 games last year, and has been Winnipeg's best defenceman in 2021, logging top minutes.

The Jets also received the 20th-overall pick in the 2019 draft, used to select defenceman Ville Heinola. (Winnipeg originally owned the pick, previously traded months earlier, along with Brendan Lemieux, in exchange for approximately six weeks of rental on forward Kevin Hayes).

Heinola, 19, currently skating with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL, has a legitimate shot at being a top-pairing guy for years to come.

Ville Heinola, currently with the Manitoba Moose, has a legitimate shot at being a top-pairing guy for years to come.

MIKE DEAL / FREE PRESS FILES

Ville Heinola, currently with the Manitoba Moose, has a legitimate shot at being a top-pairing guy for years to come.

Pionk has put up 57 points to Trouba's 29 since the swap. He's almost three years younger. He's playing a bigger role on the better team. He's making $5 million less per season (valuable cap space for the Jets). And the Jets got arguably their most exciting prospect out of the deal, as well.

Not convinced yet?

Do you think Cheveldayoff would call up Rangers GM Jeff Gorton and offer him Pionk and Heinola for Trouba? Not a chance. How about just a straight-up Pionk-for-Trouba? No way, no how.

Pionk is also proving to be more than just a one-trick offensive pony. His defensive game continues to improve, as does his physical play: Pionk leads the Jets in hits, with 38 through 15 games.

Pionk (4) is also proving to be more than just a one-trick offensive pony.

JOHN WOODS / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Pionk (4) is also proving to be more than just a one-trick offensive pony.

"We saw that. That was kind of the video pre-scout on Neal. (It) was that he was a slightly heavier version of Josh Morrissey. Similar styles of game, really good feet, great gap, great stick, but he’d finish checks a little bit differently than Josh does," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said.

As an example, Maurice noted how Pionk had a team-high four hits Feb. 13 against the Ottawa Senators, while Logan Stanley (6-7 without skates) had none.

"And that’s not a negative against Logan, but Logan hasn’t learned yet to do what Neal does naturally. It’s how to angle and close the gap in order to put yourself in position to hit and also keep the play alive," the coach said.

Pionk and blue-line partner Derek Forbort lead the Jets by a significant margin in what Maurice has called "kill plays" — a change-of-possession in the defensive end.

Pionk leads the Jets in hits, with 38 through 15 games.

SEAN KILPATRICK / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Pionk leads the Jets in hits, with 38 through 15 games.

For a team searching for a better defensive identity, after being a disaster at times last year, it is significant. It's also why Pionk and Forbort are the only duo to stay intact since the first game of the 2021 season.

"He’s an exceptional player," said Maurice, adding it all starts with the intensity Pionk brings to practice. "I think, eventually, Neal will be appreciated — in part, because he plays in Canada. If he was playing in a less scrutinized market, his game might quietly be underappreciated. But we certainly appreciate it here."

Morrissey couldn't contain his glee Tuesday, as he spoke about what Pionk has brought to the Winnipeg ice.

"He’s obviously playing great hockey for us. He had an amazing year last year... He’s a phenomenal guy, he’s great in our room," the veteran defenceman said. "I think his game speaks for itself, he just continues to get better and better. He’s been great for us."

The Jets, however, are ultimately going to have to pay for all this, literally: Pionk is a restricted free agent this summer. He's going to command a hefty raise, one the Jets will happily pay.

Throw in Heinola's sky-high potential and perhaps it's a good thing the Jets won't be venturing south of the U.S. border this season. In New York, it's unlikely the welcome mat will be rolled out for Cheveldayoff any time soon.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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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.

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