TORONTO — The Winnipeg Jets weren't sure exactly what they were getting in Neal Pionk. Even those who now sing his praises on a daily basis would have had a hard time picking him out of a lineup just a short time ago.
That includes Jets coach Paul Maurice, who often gets asked by out-of-market scribes what his team's biggest surprise of the season has been. The answer almost always leads to Pionk, as it did Wednesday prior to Winnipeg's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"We go into New York last year and they had played in Montreal the night before, we were waiting for them. And I start Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. And (New York) starts (Marc) Staal and some kid named Pionk. And I’m thinking this is going to be really good for us, and we’re down 3-0 after two," Maurice said following the morning skate at Scotiabank Arena.
"You’re walking off the bench going who the hell is Neal Pionk, why’s he shutting down our No. 1 line."
Maurice wasn't the only one left shaking his head. The undrafted, college free agent was hardly a household name, and his acquisition last summer in the Jacob Trouba trade had plenty of local fans, and critics, instantly panning the move as a fleece-job by the Rangers.
It's safe to say that talk has quieted. Pionk has established himself as a key piece on Winnipeg's blue-line, a fixture in the top four who has helped steady the ship following the departures of Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot, the absence of Dustin Byfuglien and a lengthy injury to Dmitry Kulikov.
"If anyone didn't know who he was before coming here, if they've watched him play this year they know what he's all about now," Josh Morrissey, the Jets' No. 1 defenceman, said Wednesday.
Is there any dispute that Pionk is No. 2 right now on the depth chart? An assist last Saturday in his home state of Minnesota gave him 27 points through the season's first 42 games, which already eclipses the career-best of 26 he posted in 73 games last year with the Broadway Blueshirts. Not only does he lead all Jets blue-liners in scoring (Morrissey has 24 points), he sits 18th in the NHL among defencemen while also playing an average of 23:12 per night.
"It just means I have good teammates. You don't get an assist without the puck going in the net, so a lot of credit goes to them," Pionk said Wednesday, downplaying his personal achievements. "But to contribute is always nice. I think a lot of it is creating scoring chances because points will come and go, but a lot of it is just creating scoring chances and helping the team out in that sense."
Just 24, he's providing extremely good value in the first of a two-year deal which pays him US$3 million per season. For those keeping track, Trouba has 21 points, which has him tied for 41st among defencemen. He's also making US$8 million per season for the 20-18-4 Rangers.
"I don't look at it as filling his shoes, because obviously he was a heck of a defenceman. The way I look at is just playing my game. I can't try to do too much more. If I try to do too much more, I won't be who I am and I'll do other uncharacteristic things. My thing is just to be who I am," said Pionk.
Pionk admits he was stunned by the trade to Winnipeg — he had just finished off the best golf round of his life when New York GM Jeff Gorton called him with the news — but says it couldn't have worked out any better. It also continues to serve as a motivator, of sorts.
"It was a trade and that just happens in pro sports. Nothing bad to say about the Rangers organization. They all wished me the best and treated me real well while I was there, but at the same time, absolutely, you don't want to get traded. You come from the perspective of 'Hey, I want to stay here for a long time', and I want to prove that teams don't want to trade me, they want to keep me," said Pionk.
The immediate opportunity waiting for him with his new team got even bigger when Byfuglien didn't report to training camp, opting to consider whether he wanted to continue playing hockey followed by ankle surgery. That opened up a spot on the power play, where Pionk currently anchors the top unit and has 15 of his 27 points.
"That situation is what it is. I think everybody had to step up in a sense, not just myself. Everyone on the defensive core, all seven or eight of us had to step up in that situation," said Pionk.
Maurice sees a lot of similarities between Morrissey and Pionk, and you wonder if the two may find themselves paired together at some point. Morrissey has spent most of the year with Tucker Poolman, while Pionk was routinely with Kulikov until he went down with injury in late November. He's been skating with Luca Sbisa since, averaging 23:12 of ice time per game.
"Because of the situation we’re in with our defence this year and Byfuglien’s absence, he got pushed into numbers that I think are great for him. He’s a really fit guy, he’s capable of handling it... But we are exceptionally pleased with how that’s worked out for us," said Maurice.
Unlike that night in New York, Maurice has a really good idea of who Pionk is now.
"He’s playing big minutes and he’s now having an impact in all parts of our game. He’s done a nice job in our power play getting going, in some ways, with his shot from the top. He’s played with a whole lot of different partners. If Morrissey and Poolman aren’t on the ice against the other team’s best, it’s Neal and whoever he is playing with that night," he said.
"So, I would say the hallmark though his game isn’t necessarily how well he skates or how well he moves the puck... it’s been his consistency. He’s just come in and had a very high level of consistency."
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.
Updated on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at 7:21 PM CST: Fixes name of arena