The Winnipeg Jets have wasted no time putting Neal Pionk to work.
They didn’t really have a choice, considering Josh Morrissey missed a pair of games and the team is without five defencemen from last year’s roster.
Pionk wasn’t sure what his role would be when the New York Rangers shipped him off to Winnipeg for Jacob Trouba in June, but surely, he wasn’t expecting to be the NHL’s ice-time leader after eight games.
Not that he has any problem with that. In fact, it’s made his transition to his new team easier. Pionk leads the league with 185:24 minutes played after Tuesday’s outing.
"You get thrown right into the fire, which forces you to adapt and get close to your teammates and that’s only going to help," said Pionk, who has two goals and three assists as a Jet. "So, I think that’s been really helpful for me."
In 101 games over a two-year span with the Rangers, Pionk averaged just over 21 minutes per contest.
So far this season, the 24-year-old has seen his ice time jump up to an average of 23:10.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice was asked prior to Tuesday night’s game against the Arizona Coyotes for his thoughts on how Pionk has handled such a large role.
"Neal’s been great, all that we would have hoped for from watching his video last year, being put in a pretty prominent role... we’ve played him now with some pretty young players, but he’s played very, very well," Maurice said.
Pionk has been paired with a fellow 24-year-old also in his first year with the Jets. Carl Dahlstrom knows the Jets have struggled on defence at times, with last night’s 4-2 loss to Arizona a prime example. But Dahlstrom believes the defence pairings will find more consistency. Dahlstrom also believes he and Pionk fit well together.
"I like him a lot. He’s really skilled with the puck," said Dahlstrom, who played 49 games with the Chicago Blackhawks between 2017-19. "He’s a good offensive D-man, so it kind of brings me to just focus on my game, which is more of a focus on defensive parts. So, I think it’s a good balance of the offensive and defensive aspects of the game. He can kind of join the rush and then I’ll think of the other stuff."
The Jets might not have many options outside of Pionk, but the Hermantown, Minn., native has delivered for the team thus far. His five points lead all Jets defenceman and are the fifth most on the team.
You could say his strong play has silenced a few doubters that weren’t too pleased with what the Jets received in the Trouba deal. But for Pionk, it’s not about proving people wrong or playing more than his teammates.
His main focus is just doing whatever’s asked of him to help the Jets win games.
"Whatever it takes to help the team win," Pionk said.
"What kind of role you play, I don’t think it matters. I think you ask any guy around the room, I don’t think it matters to them.
"So, for me personally, whatever role they give me, I think it’s important that I help the team win."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.