The outlook for the Winnipeg Jets’ upcoming season is currently hanging in limbo with their two big restricted free agent forwards unsigned and star defenceman Dustin Byfuglien on personal leave.
While you have to hope Byfuglien does what’s best for himself and his family, there’s no denying if he chooses to leave the game for good, it puts the Jets in a serious bind defensively after losing Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to free agency and trading Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers.
The immediate return in the Trouba trade is Neal Pionk, a 24-year-old defenceman who is a bit of a conundrum.
Pionk can make some dynamic plays and his skating is excellent, but when you look at his on-ice results, things aren’t as pretty.
The Rangers were bad last season, but they were worse by a significant margin when Pionk was on the ice. The most drastic difference was in inner-slot shots, also called high danger scoring chances, where the Rangers were actually a hair into the positives with Pionk on the bench, but recorded less than 45 per cent of the chances while he was on the ice.
Similarly, overall shots and shot attempts took nosedives, while passes to the slot didn’t change much.
Those aren’t positive signs Pionk can be a top-four contributor. It’s strange his results were that poor when he ranked second on the Rangers’ defence in completed transition plays per 20 minutes, behind only Anthony DeAngelo, committed the fewest offensive zone turnovers, the third-least neutral zone turnovers, was middle of the pack in defensive zone turnovers, recovered more loose pucks in the defensive zone per minute than anyone else on the roster except for Kevin Shattenkirk, and posted the highest zone entry denial rate on the Rangers at 47.3 per cent.
Those are all signs Pionk is more than competent with and without the puck, but his overall results remain troubling.
One issue was Pionk tended to pinch too aggressively and too often, as he was on the ice for more odd-man rushes against than all but four regular defencemen last season, and one of only eight defencemen to be on the ice for over one odd-man rush against every 20 minutes of ice time.
The other issue was the player with whom he was paired. Pionk’s most common partner last season was Marc Staal, a player who has historically tanked with on-ice differentials for years now, and the only New York defenceman to post worse differentials than Pionk.
It goes beyond Pionk as well, if we graph out Pionk’s partners by ice time and look at the shot share the Rangers had from the inner slot while each group was on the ice.
Aligning the x-axis with the Rangers’ team average shot share from that area of the ice (not the team average with Pionk off the ice), we can see that he only managed to get above the team average with three players, and he played a combined 8.6 per cent of his total ice time with those three.
If Pionk can find a top-four quality defenceman within himself, it would be a serious breath of fresh air for a Jets squad that seems to be getting only bad news at the moment. But it’s just a lot to ask from a player who has only been above average for about 100 even strength minutes.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.