Pionk looking for consistency
Jets’ usually reliable blue-liner knows he can be better at both ends of rink
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What’s going on with Neal Pionk?
It’s a question many watching the Winnipeg Jets are asking these days, as the veteran defenceman has noticeably struggled at times. Both the eye test and the underlying analytics support that.
Some are speculating Pionk is playing hurt, as he quietly did for much of last season. The 27-year-old Minnesota product claims he is healthy, and he’s been taking part in practices and morning skates, for what it’s worth.
His sporadic play stands out even more considering the Jets, as a whole, have been much cleaner in their own end of the ice under new coach Rick Bowness. And many skaters, including all-star blue-liner Josh Morrissey, are thriving.
So we ask again: What’s going on with Neal Pionk?
“Yeah, a little more consistency on the defensive side of the puck,” is how Bowness began answering that query on Thursday, prior to the Jets’ battle with the Buffalo Sabres at Canada Life Centre.
“That’s not always just on him. There are four other guys out there that can help him out a little bit more. I never look at it as one guy, unless it’s a clear one-on-one mistake. Well, that’s easy. But some of the things that are happening to him, a little more support from the guys on the ice for him would have helped him and then those numbers would have changed.”
Fair enough, and it’s worth pointing out Pionk is still putting up solid offensive numbers. He’s already set a new career high with seven goals while also chipping in 14 assists. He’s also a team-worst minus-four, the only blue-liner on the wrong side of the ledger.
According to Bowness, the defensive zone problems may actually begin in the offensive zone for Pionk.
“I talked to him again this morning. I think he’s got a great shot and I want to see it more, especially on the power play. Again, sometimes you’re going through a spell when you don’t feel good and you need to be more selfish. Don’t overthink it. If the shot is there, take it,” he said.
“I know sometimes you’re out of the sync of a game and that’s going to happen but the worst thing you can do is overthink it and look for other options — when you have the shot that he has. If you shoot the puck more and you’re generating offence, it just gets you into the flow of the game.”
An interesting theory, for sure.
Pionk is typically a man of few words but admitted his recent play has been inconsistent.
“It can always be better. I know I can be better defensively, I can also produce more,” he said. “That goes with the power play. The second power play hasn’t scored a whole lot, so I’m running the second power play and I take that on me.”
To that extent, the Jets put in some extra work at the morning skate on their special teams.
“We want to gain momentum. You’re not going to score every time. I think the best power play runs at 30 per cent. The biggest thing is creating momentum, creating scoring chances, and creating in-zone time,” said Pionk.
“We were out there working on some stuff, some breakouts, just getting control of the puck and getting into the zone and then some movement and shooting the puck.”
INJURY UPDATE: The Jets are down to just two players sidelined by injury — way down from seven at one point earlier this year — and there’s encouraging news on both.
Forward David Gustafsson is expected to resume skating in the next few days as he deals with an upper-body injury suffered on Jan. 10. Winger Mason Appleton is close to shedding the red non-contact jersey he wore Thursday after suffering a wrist injury on Nov. 13 that required surgery.
“He’s getting closer. But I would say after the All-Star break is the best bet, without ruling out the possibility of Saturday or Monday,” said Bowness.
The Jets host the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday (6 p.m.), and St. Louis Blue on Monday (7 p.m.), before an 11-day hockey hiatus.
Winnipeg is currently at the 23-player roster maximum, with forward Sam Gagner and defencemen Dylan Samberg and Kyle Capobianco the healthy scratches against the Sabres. Two corresponding moves would have to be made to get Gustafsson and Appleton back into the mix, assuming no other injuries occur between now and then.
BRUCE THERE HE GOES: Bowness wouldn’t go into details, but he admitted reaching out to good friend Bruce Boudreau earlier this week after he was unceremoniously sacked by the Vancouver Canucks.
“I’ve known Bruce for a long time. Listen, I hate… I always reach out when any coach gets fired in this league because I hate when that happens.,” said Bowness. “It’s part of what we all sign up for. It’s something you never want to go through. So, I reach out to them all and I reached out to Bruce.”
Bowness wouldn’t bite when asked to comment on how Canucks management handled the situation, which has been the subject of much scrutiny and ridicule.
“I don’t like to talk about other organizations,” he said. “Nice try, though.”
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.