I’ll be the first to admit that the idea of Neal Pionk in Winnipeg was a bit difficult to process at first. The Jets had traded away my true love in Jacob Trouba in exchange for one of their original first-round picks and Pionk. At the time, I was panicking a bit because Neal had been one of New York’s worst defensemen. His on-ice impact was, in a word, horrendous. That said, he’d have these shifts in the offensive zone where you could tell there was some decent skill buried beneath bad habits. Could the Jets turn Pionk into a legitimate top-4 skater?
Incredibly, the Jets have gotten the best version of Pionk to ever exist. Neal hasn’t been around the league very long, but he’s played enough games to know much of his strengths lie outside of the defensive zone. In contrast to Pionk’s days in New York, his Jets tenure has shown a renewed defensive awareness and improved positioning. Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean he’s become a reliable defender. Often times, he still doesn’t recognize danger that isn’t telegraphed two to three steps in advance. Despite these issues, he’s improved in his ability to man-mark and track down puck-carriers, though his physical engagements are still awkward.
Much of Pionk’s value is in his offensive game, and he did quite a bit for Winnipeg. Neal racked up 45 points over the course of the regular season, and was one of the top defensive scorers in the league. Much of his production came on the power play, arguably one of the areas he struggles the most in. Pionk has a pretty good shot and isn’t afraid to use it, but he struggles to make power play passes to guys like Laine. This makes his presence on special teams a bit one-dimensional, and he’s not a true QB like you’d expect. It was frustrating to see all of his passes move at the speed of a snail, and it probably contributed to many of Laine’s power play struggles this year.
The rest of Pionk’s game is workable, but he’s due for a raise and I’m not convinced the Jets should be extending him long-term. With how many points Neal’s capable of scoring, it might be time to consider moving him in exchange for some futures. I am actually somewhat of a fan of what Pionk can bring in the right environment, but I don’t see a long-term fit with Winnipeg. The contract he’ll be looking for is likely higher than his true value, and his limitations are enough to give me pause on extension thoughts. If the Jets can reach a reasonable contract, though, I’d be fine with Pionk hanging around. He’s a lot better than I expected, and he brings real value to a team lacking many good blueline options.