Trading key members of the New York Rangers last year such as Ryan McDonagh has created openings that allow younger players to showcase their talent. One of the most surprising and productive kids has been the undrafted defenseman from Minnesota: Neal Pionk.
What a pleasant surprise Pionk has been for this team. In 61 games played the right-handed defenseman has 33 points, 17 of them recorded on the man advantage. At 23-years-old, only two defensemen younger than Pionk have more points, Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot and Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin and no one younger has more power play points. With Kevin Shattenkirk out and Brady Skjei not playing up to expectations, Pionk has stepped up big time, eating almost 23 minutes a game while partnered up with Marc Staal on the first pairing. He can clearly contribute offensively, but is this production sustainable?
In 28 games played last year Pionk put up 1g-13a-14p and finished at minus one on a downward trending team. In 33 games played so far this year, he’s improved on a more depleted struggling team with a line of 5-14-19 and an even plus/minus. Pionk has tremendous skating ability that enables him to exit the zone on his own rather than chipping the puck away to the opposing team. He’s had moments of brilliance, often taking matter into his own hands and creating high-scoring chances, showing flashes of a young Brian Leetch.
The former defenseman out of Minnesota-Deluth went undrafted but made plenty of noise following his freshman year. As a sophomore, he was the second highest scoring defenseman in the NCHC, potting 34 points in 42 NCAA games ,good for 4th overall on the team. The Hermantown, Minnesota native became one of the more sought after free agents on the market.
Because the Rangers didn’t use a draft pick on Pionk, his Return-on-Investment is through the roof. He shows he can skate with the best in the league, he can put up points, and he’s more than equipped with playing top line minutes.
Struggling on a struggling team.
Acquiring Pionk was a much needed win for an organization that spent year after year giving away young talent to support a “win now” window. Though his decision to come to New York was a breath of fresh air, now that he’s a full time blueshirt it’s important to note parts of his game that could use some work.
Advanced stat hungry fans already know that Pionk’s Corsi % isn’t great. At 42.2% he is 18th on the team, meaning the Rangers don’t control the puck as much as the opposition when he is on the ice. Although he passes the eye-test it means that Pionk is spending more time chasing the puck in his own zone than controlling it on the other end of the ice. His partner, Staal, isn’t doing much better, sitting at 16th overall with a 43.1%.
An easy excuse, though valid, is to note that as the first-pairing line of defense, the Pionk-Staal combo is facing the opposing teams top line each night. That’s Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J Oshie four times a year. During a rebuilding year it’s expected for them to have their struggles, but overall matching up against the likes of Sydney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Evgeni Malkin and Taylor Hall four to five times a year should have a positive impact on Pionk’s development while hurting his possession numbers.