In the 2015-16 season, Keith Yandle picked up 47 points in 82 games. That is the most points for a Rangers defenseman since the 2004-05 NHL lockout. As of the 2018 holiday break, sophomore defender Neal Pionk has 19 points in 33 games — which puts him on pace for around 46 points. That’s an impressive feat for a player who was just three games over the qualification for a rookie season in the NHL last year.
A lot has been said and written about Pionk and his play outside of the offensive zone this season. But that’s not what this article is about. Today, we’re going to look at Pionk and his ability to generate offense from the blue line, especially on the power play. We’re going to discuss what he’s done to emerge as the Rangers’ most productive right-handed defenseman on a roster that features Kevin Shattenkirk and Tony DeAngelo.
Pionk showed some promise as an offensive defensemen in his two years playing NCAA hockey despite going undrafted. In his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota Duluth he led the Bulldogs with 19 points on the power play. It’s also worth noting that 14 of his 27 assists (all situations) in his final NCAA season were primary.
While with the Hartford Wolf Pack last season, Pionk wasn’t the Wolf Pack’s top option on the power play; John Gilmour was. Pionk had three primary points on the man advantage in 48 games in the AHL. However, he did lead all Wolf Pack defensemen with six primary assists at even strength.
After getting called up to New York, Pionk had 14 points in 28 games as a rookie defenseman in the NHL. He had five primary assists at 5v5 and led all Rangers’ d-men in scoring in the final 28 games of the year. Pionk was also on the ice for 18 of the Rangers 49 goals at 5v5 in the last 28 games of last season.
So, there were definitely some promising signs of Pionk’s offensive upside in his first 76 games of professional hockey. But no one was expecting him to usurp Shattenkirk on the Rangers’ top power play unit and make plays like this in his second NHL season.
Over the last two seasons, Pionk is second only to Brady Skjei in points among Rangers’ defensemen. He trails Skjei by just three points despite playing in 53 fewer games. In his first 61 games in the NHL, Pionk has picked up 33 points. To put that into perspective: the two highest-scoring seasons for Rangers’ rookie defensemen since the 1994 Stanley Cup are Skjei with 39 points in 80 GP in 2016-17 and Michael Del Zotto with 37 points in 80 GP in 2009-10.
What is perhaps most impressive about Pionk’s production thus far is the impact he’s had on the power play. The Rangers have scored 15 of their 20 power play goals this season when he’s been on the ice. And he’s played an active role in that production with two goals and nine primary assists on the power play this season.
Pionk and Shattenkirk have played roughly the same amount of time on the power play this year, but Shattenkirk has spent a lot more time with the second unit which is why there’s more to the story than what the table above tells us. It’s also worth mentioning that Shattenkirk and DeAngelo both have higher xGF% on the power play than Pionk. However, Pionk is definitely not hurting the Rangers’ chances on the man advantages. He’s been making the most of his role on the top unit.
Needless to say, there’s a lot more to being a promising young defenseman than counting stats and power play production. Pionk has a lot to improve on with his play away from the puck, but his play with the puck in the offensive zone should be acknowledged and even celebrated.
One needs only look at the franchise’s history to appreciate what Pionk might represent. There are only five right-handed defensemen who have had 40 or more points in a single season with the Rangers — Michael Rozsival being the most recent. This season, in 33 games, Pionk has already matched the 12 power play points that Shattenkirk had for the Rangers in 46 games last season.
If Pionk keeps this pace up — which he should be able to if he stays on the top power play unit — he’ll have the most points in a single season for a right-handed Rangers defenseman since Sergei Zubov’s 89 point rookie season in 1993-94. Not bad for an undrafted college free agent playing in his first full NHL season. Not bad at all.