It’s safe to say Neal Pionk was taken aback by the trade that brought him to the Winnipeg Jets four days before the NHL draft last summer. It’s also safe to say he wasn’t the only one who was shocked by the turn of events.
Let’s start with Pionk. He was at his summer home in Minneapolis, kicking back after shooting the golf round of his life. He only started playing the game three years ago, so a score in the low 80s was something to celebrate. He was basking in the achievement when he looked at his cell phone and the call display was showing New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton’s number. And he’s a smart kid. He knew Gorton hadn’t heard about the golf game and wasn’t calling to congratulate him and he also knew your GM doesn’t call you four days before the draft just to ask you how you’re doing.
“I texted the guys I was golfing with that day and said, ‘Listen, I can’t golf with you guys anymore,’ ” Pionk said. “I was literally laying on my bed and I hadn’t even gotten out of my golf clothes yet. When the GM’s name pops up, you know it’s something.”
If Pionk was surprised by the trade, that was nothing compared to the reaction it received in Winnipeg. ‘We traded Jacob Trouba for this guy?’ was pretty much the general sentiment there, sans the profanities. But Pionk has been a revelation. That he has played the best hockey of his career is undeniable. After the trade was made, the Jets signed Pionk to a two-year deal with an annual cap hit of $3 million and the Rangers signed Trouba to a seven-year deal worth $8 million annually. Not only is Pionk outscoring Trouba by six points going into tonight’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Jets defender has already surpassed his personal career high in points and has been a good defensive presence.
Pionk was even a revelation to Jets coach Paul Maurice. In fact, the seeds were planted for the deal last season when the Jets visited the Rangers in December 2018 and Pionk was in the Rangers’ starting lineup. “They had played in Montreal the night before and we were waiting for them,” Maurice said. “I start Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler and (Rangers coach David Quinn) starts (Marc) Staal and some kid named Pionk. I was thinking, ‘This is going to be really good for us’ and we were down 3-0 after two. You’re walking off the bench saying, ‘Who the hell is Neal Pionk and why is he shutting down our No. 1 line?’ ”
The deal, in a crazy way, has actually turned out to be great for both teams. Included in the deal was a first-round pick, which turned out to be 20th overall and netted the Jets Ville Heinola, a gold medal winner at the 2019 World Junior Championship who made the Jets out of training camp as an 18-year-old defenseman. That pick, ironically, had originally belonged to the Jets before they gave it up in a deal for Kevin Hayes at the trade deadline last season that also included Brendan Lemieux going to New York. Not a bad return for the Jets in a deal they were forced to make.
With all the injuries, chief among them being Dustin Byfuglien’s self-elected and surreptitious ankle surgery, Pionk has averaged more than 23 minutes of ice time per game and played 25-plus minutes in seven games this season. “We saw him as a version of Josh Morrissey,” Maurice said. “He gets to the walls pretty heavily when he needs to. Because of the situation we’re in with our defensemen this year, and with Byfuglien’s absence, he got pushed into (ice time) numbers that are great for him. He’s a really fit guy and he’s capable of handling it, so it gave him the opportunity to be as good as he is. We are exceptionally pleased with how it has worked out for us.”
Nobody in hockey-mad Winnipeg is wondering who Neal Pionk is anymore. The blueline in Winnipeg has sometimes been a dog’s breakfast this season – and played like it on occasion in its own end – with two players picked up on waiver claims and a sense that things are sometimes being held together with twine and wires. But one of the constants has been the play of Pionk, who acknowledges he came to his new team with somewhat of a chip on his shoulder.
“As far as those comments, I think I’ve done a pretty good job, but I still have work to do,” Pionk said. “I don’t look at it as filling (Trouba’s) shoes. The way I look at it is just playing my game. I can’t do too much more. If I do too much more, I won’t be who I am and I’ll be doing things that are uncharacteristic of myself. My thing is just to be who I am.”
And if the early returns are any indication, the Jets and their fans are thrilled with Neal Pionk being who he is and doing what he does.