Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk says there's no chance of developing a swollen head or big ego now that he's armed with a brand new contract. Not when he has a bunch of hometown buddies keeping him humble.
"My good friends say I'm overpaid," the Minnesota native said with a chuckle during Thursday's Zoom session. "Depends who you ask, I guess."
Fact is, a legitimate argument could be made that Pionk left some money on the table when he signed a four-year, US$23.5-million extension Wednesday (US$5.875 million per year), avoiding an arbitration hearing that was set for Friday morning.
But Pionk, who trails only 12 other NHL rear-guards in scoring over the past two seasons, doesn't see it that way. The 26-year-old gets some long-term security with a franchise he believes in, one which appears to be a legitimate hockey heavyweight. And the Jets get enough financial wiggle room to keep the band together, which included re-upping their other big restricted free agent, Andrew Copp, to a one-year pact on Thursday.
"I don’t think either side really wants to go to arbitration," said Pionk. "Obviously I’ve heard it’s kind of a messy process. We came to a conclusion that this was the best deal for both sides.
"It’s all part of negotiation. I think each side probably had to give up a little bit. And that’s where we kind of met in the middle, so to speak. I’m just really excited it worked for both sides and that I’m able to be part of the team for the next four years."
The Jets will head into training camp next month with arguably the deepest roster they've had since moving from Atlanta, one that has been bolstered by the additions of defencemen Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon this summer. Along with Pionk, Josh Morrissey, Dylan DeMelo, Logan Stanley and bright young prospects such as Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg, Winnipeg's blue line now appears to be a real strength.
"Making those two additions is going to be huge for us," said Pionk, who has skated with Schmidt in their native Minnesota during the offseason.
"We had a couple of short conversations. Yeah, he’s a ball of energy so he’ll be bringing a lot of life to the locker room for sure. When I say short, I mean he talked and I listened. You can never have enough Minnesota guys on the team, that’s for sure."
As for Dillon, the former Washington Capitals defenceman will bring a much-needed physical element to the back-end, one that the undersized but hard-hitting Pionk is no stranger to.
"Obviously hockey’s a pretty small world so I’ve heard really good things about him," he said. "He’s one of those guys you hate playing against him, but you want to have him on your team bad, so I was really happy to see that we picked him up."
With 2019-20 Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck behind them, and a group of elite forwards up front, it's not a huge surprise Pionk sees a good fit around here.
"Obviously, we have a winning window. I see us as contenders too," he said. "From a team perspective, I think we have a great chance to win. We bolstered our blue line, we know the forward group that we have, and we have Helle in net. So I think it increases our chances to win by a lot."
After going undrafted and signing as a free agent with the New York Rangers, Pionk's career really took off after being included in the Jacob Trouba trade two summers ago. He had 45 points (six goals, 39 assists) in 71 regular-season games with the Jets in 2019-20, then followed that up with 32 points (three goals, 29 assists) in 54 games last year. Pionk also has six assists in 12 playoff games with Winnipeg.
Pionk's new deal eats up two years of unrestricted free agency, expiring when he's 30. It also matches up to a number of other contracts surrounding core players on the club.
"We looked at a lot of different options, whether it was a longer-termed deal, a one- or two-year deal, but obviously we kind of met in the middle and we negotiated. That’s part of the business of hockey. A four-year deal just worked for both sides," he said.
Pionk spent most of last season paired with Derek Forbort, who signed with Boston this summer as a UFA. He isn't sure who his partner will be for the coming campaign — Morrissey or Dillon are the two most likely candidates — but is champing at the bit to get going.
"No preference for me personally but I think the biggest thing for me going into camp is if I do play with somebody new that came in a trade or maybe it’s a recent signing, is to get to know him as well as I can and might be something as little as having a conversation off the ice," said Pionk.
"But not only that but getting to know their tendencies on the ice, watching the littlest things that they do, maybe have a conversation about how you’d like to play a certain play, what kind of plays you like to make with the puck. So the faster you can build that chemistry, the better of you’re going to be."
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.