September 28, 2020

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Pionk making Trouba deal look good

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)</p><p>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. </p>

(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.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/11/2019 (310 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

DALLAS — So many big questions have come out of Dallas. Did Oswald act alone? Who shot J.R.? Was Hull’s skate in the crease?

So, here’s another query from the sprawling metropolis of Dallas-Fort Worth, the final stop of a prosperous four-game road trip for the Winnipeg Jets that spanned nine days and produced two wins in Florida and one in Tennessee before a defeat in Texas.

Who’s winning the Jacob Trouba trade, seven weeks into the 2019-20 NHL season?

Neal Pionk, 24, the main piece obtained by Winnipeg in a swap of defencemen with the New York Rangers, says he ignored the obvious comparison after the blockbuster deal in June. And he certainly doesn’t concern himself with it now.

"I don’t know if you can look into (the trade) too much because then you put unnecessary pressure on yourself. It’s just part of the business, and we all know it’s reality for every single guy in this locker room. You have to play your own game, you can’t try to be anybody else," Pionk said late this week.

"As far as my style of play, playing that combination of a hard game but also a fast game, an up-tempo game, and I think that’s come out here with the Jets."

Winnipeg was backed into a corner by Trouba, a talented, offensively minded defenceman coming off a career season with eight goals and 42 assists. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff couldn’t sign the restricted free agent long-term, so he accepted offers from around the league and settled on the Rangers’ offer a week before the draft.

That came in the form of Pionk and the 20th overall selection in the draft — a teenage defenceman named Ville Heinola who quickly became a household name this fall in Manitoba. The pick originally belonged to Winnipeg but was part of a package, along with feisty forward Brendan Lemieux, sent to Manhattan for Kevin Hayes at the February trade deadline.

The prevailing theme on social media and the opinions of hockey insiders was that Cheveldayoff got taken to the cleaners. That was then, this is now.

Trouba looked like a Norris Trophy candidate as the NHL’s best blue-liner exactly one game into his career in New York. He scored once and set up two goals as the Blueshirts beat his former team in the season-opener at Madison Square Garden Oct. 3.

Since then, the Michigan product’s offensive show has been stuck on pause. In 18 contests since the opener, Trouba has nary a snipe and has helped set up just four more NYR tallies, despite garnering nearly 23 minutes of ice time a night, tops on the Rangers roster. 

While he struggles to produce offensively, he is, by all accounts, faring only marginally as he gets acclimatized to the gritty, tight-checking Eastern Conference. The underlying numbers, including possession and expected goals, suggest Pionk is out-playing Trouba through roughly a quarter of the season.

The undrafted 24-year-old from Hermantown, Minn., has two goals and nine assists in 23 contests, showing a tidiness in his own end and a penchant for joining the rush. Pionk has either made a rapid transformation from bum -- as impatient, ill-tempered Rangers fans would have the hockey believe -- to steady, two-way defenceman, or he wasn’t too shabby a player in the first place.

Heinola, meanwhile, earned his way onto Winnipeg’s roster after an exceptional training camp, despite being a slightly built 18-year-old. He scored a goal and added four assists in eight games before being assigned to the team’s AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. A week later, both player and organization concluded a return to Finland was the most suitable move for his development.

During a conversation in Dallas, Jets head coach Paul Maurice spoke glowingly about Winnipeg’s return in the Trouba trade. 

"You gotta be careful about what you predict about a player (like Heinola) that’s not in the NHL. But Neal Pionk fits our team," said Maurice. "He’s just grown. The minutes are good for him, he can handle it. A very fit man, very efficient but plays at a high intensity level. And you have Ville Heinola there. So, this is going to turn out to be a really good thing for both teams. We gave up a good defenceman but added two -- one outstanding right now and one we think will be.

"What you hope for is a certain amount of consistency in a young defenceman, and that, to me, would be (Pionk’s) strength. He has played an incredibly consistent game all year long."

Pionk, listed at 6-0, 190-pounds, was signed as a free agent by the Rangers in May 2017 after two seasons at the University of Minnesota (Duluth). He played parts of two seasons (7G, 33A, 101GP) for the Metropolitan Division team before being shipped to Winnipeg, and signed a two-year, $6-million deal with the Jets in July.

He’ll be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights when the deal concludes after the 2020-21 campaign. Quiet and unassuming, the guy from small-town U.S.A. could be an integral member of Winnipeg’s blue line for years go come.

"Coming to Winnipeg, we’ve won for the most part, so we hope to continue that for the rest of the year," he said.

"Just a work in progress all the time. Always watching video, always trying to get better. The coaches here have helped with that, so a lot of credit goes to them. There’s ebbs and flows for every year, and the hope is that when you take one step back you take two steps forward. That’s been my goal, to continue to get better, whether it’s game to game, practice to practice or year to year." 

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell 

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

Read full biography

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