It’s a story Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice isn’t certain he’s told before.
The protagonist is Neal Pionk, a defenceman now with the Jets but wasn’t when Winnipeg went to New York last season to visit the Rangers, where Pionk was playing in his rookie season.
The Jets got the Rangers on the second half of a back to back that night — Dec. 2, 2018 — 24 hours after the Rangers had lost 5-2 in Montreal.
“I start (Mark) Scheifele’s line with (Kyle) Connor and (Blake) Wheeler and they start (Marc) Staal and Pionk, and I don’t know Neal Pionk, at all,” Maurice said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be good, right? Who is this guy?’ And we’re down 3-0 after two.”
The Jets came back in that game, winning 4-3 in the shootout after one of their patented third-period comebacks.
“So I go back and I’m watching the video and this guy is a version of Josh Morrissey, that is what I was left with and we think the world of Josh,” Maurice said.
When the return for Jacob Trouba was first reported on, you could hear pin drop in Winnipeg’s hockey world.
“That’s it?” was a general sentiment, one expressed in several ways and conveyed with many emotions by Jets fans.
For some, Pionk and a first-round draft pick (20th overall) seemed like a pittance. A few weeks into the season, that tune may be changing.
A large part of that comes from that 20th pick. Ville Heinola took training camp by storm and the 18-year-old wunderkind will suit up for his seventh game with the Jets on Sunday when the team welcomes the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday.
But it’s Pionk’s game that’s flown under the radar and a cloud of instant criticism before even stepping foot on Canadian soil.
If not for Pionk, the Jets might be in much worse shape on the blue line than they are.
Instead, Pionk took training camp and the systems being employed by the coaching staff to heart.
“He has adapted very, very quickly because he can,” Maurice said. “Skating matters. We went from a size back end to kind of guys who can skate a little bit and move a little bit and he has the ability to do it.”
Has he defied Maurice’s expectations?
“Not at all. Not one little bit,” Maurice said. “The case was, you didn’t know him… this guy’s a good player.”
Pionk is first on the team in expected goals among defencemen. Ditto when it comes to expected goals/60. He’s notably aggressive at his own blue line, and noticeably successful at ending the offensive threat there and he’s got a positive shot share of 52.82% at five-on-five.
And he’s munching on big minutes: 22:48 on average per game, to be exact.