Defenseman Neal Pionk grew up about 10 minutes from the campus of the University of Minnesota Duluth and dreamed about playing for the Bulldogs.
So the decision to leave school to sign with the New York Rangers was difficult but one that he said he could not pass up.
“It was an extremely hard decision,” Pionk told NYRangers.com in a phone interview. “It’s been an absolute dream come true [to play for Minnesota Duluth] … but the decision to leave was based on opportunity. I saw there was an interest with a various number of teams and there was an opportunity for a right-handed defenseman to potentially step up and play.”
That opportunity came earlier this month when the Blueshirts inked the 21-year-old blueliner to an entry-level contract.
“I was very excited,” he said of signing with New York. “I just remember once I made it official my hands couldn’t stop shaking. It was surreal.”
Pionk is coming off a season filled with both team and individual success with the Bulldogs. His seven goals and 27 assists for 34 points were all career-highs, and Minnesota Duluth captured the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Championship and advanced to the National Championship game in Chicago.
That success led to an opportunity at the next level for Pionk, who had his pick of teams but ultimately chose New York for several, including the play style of head coach Alain Vigneault and the team’s run of recent success.
The 6-foot, 190-pound blueliner said he is a “puck carrying, two-way defenseman” that can “provide an offensive side to my game that can help the [Rangers].”
The Hermantown, Minn.-native said he looked up to Devils and Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski as a young hockey player due to their similar body types.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t hit my growth spurt until high school,” Pionk said. “I idolized [Rafalski] and watched him a lot.”
Today, Pionk said he looks to Nashville’s Ryan Ellis as a player he likes to replicate because “he’s a smaller right-handed defenseman but he’s not that small, which characterizes me well.”
Rangers Assistant General Manager Chris Drury said Pionk was on the organization’s radar for some time, and that his playmaking ability and right-handed shot were appealing to the Blueshirts.
“Neal was a defenseman we targeted for the last two years,” Drury said. “His combination of character, compete level and grit, to go along with the way he plays the game – both offensively and defensively – are the reasons why we wanted to add him.
“Every team in the League is looking for a right-handed, puck moving defenseman,” Drury added, “and we are certainly thrilled to add Neal to our organization.”
With the ink dry on a contract with New York, Pionk now said the focus is on his summer training, with the on-ice portion of workouts starting last week in Minnesota. Pionk said he’ll focus on adding weight to his frame and will also work with his skating coach to improve his transitions and pivots in time for September’s training camp.
Vigneault said at the team’s breakup day last week that the team wanted to add a young defenseman to its ranks, and Pionk is hoping to be that player.
“That’s definitely the goal,” Pionk said when asked about jumping right into the NHL next fall. “I think that’s everyone’s goal going into training camp. Nothing is guaranteed or will be handed to me.