The Rangers’ blue line hasn’t been stretched this thin in years. Brendan Smith is in the AHL and the injuries to Steven Kampfer, Kevin Shattenkirk, Ryan McDonagh, and Marc Staal have forced the Rangers to turn to their reserves. It’s been less than a week since the Blueshirts called up John Gilmour and Neal Pionk from the Hartford Wolf Pack and threw them to the wolves of NHL competition. See what I did there? Yeah, I’m not proud of myself.
It’s important to remember that Gilmour is far from being a kid. This is his second season of professional hockey; he’ll be 25 in May. Gilmour joined the Rangers organization as a free agent in August 2016. Initially a seventh-round pick of the Calgary Flames, Gilmour was putting together a rock solid second AHL season before being called up. He also won the fastest skater award at the AHL All-Star game this season.
Pionk, 22, is a true rookie. Like Gilmour, he joined the Rangers as a free agent after his college career, but he was never drafted. Last season Pionk was playing hockey at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Before being called up to the Rangers, he had 17 points in 48 games with the Wolf Pack.
What stands out most about Gilmour and Pionk’s brief tenure with the Rangers thus far is how they’ve been deployed. Alain Vigneault has used the young defensemen in very different ways. Although we are working with a very limited sample size, the past three games could tell us something about what the organization expects from the recent call-ups.
Pionk has played nearly 20 minutes a night since being called up and played a staggering 25:28 against the Minnesota Wild. Needless to say, that’s asking a lot of a 22-year-old defenseman in his first year out of NCAA hockey. Pionk was on the ice for two of the Wild’s goals on Tuesday, but it’s hard to fault him for Rick Nash’s costly gaffe.
- Pionk – Rel Corsi, -7.43 percent | 19:48 TOI | 103.4 PDO | 48.28 OZ FO percentage (all 5v5)
All things considered, Pionk has performed admirably in his three game crucible. Despite his 5-foot-11 frame, he’s played sound, physical hockey. Remember, the scouting reports on Pionk tell us that he’s an offensive defenseman.
One week ago he was a rookie defenseman in the AHL. Now he’s Brady Skjei’s defensive partner on the Rangers top pair.
NYR at MIN, 13 Feb— Hockey Viz (@HockeyViz) February 14, 2018
Lines, icetime, and zone usage pic.twitter.com/pmy4rh282P
Gilmour has seen far less ice time in the last three games, but he’s been on the power play nearly as much as DeAngelo. Due in large part to his power play time and sheltered 5-on-5 minutes, Gilmour already has 10 shots on net. Before the Kampfer injury, he and Pionk were paired together. When Kampfer came out of the lineup the Rangers coaching staff put Gilmour together with recent AHL call-up Ryan Sproul.
- Gilmour – Rel Corsi, -3.61 percent | 16:01 TOI | 107.1 PDO | 61.9 OZ FO percentage (all 5v5)
Gilmour’s ceiling isn’t as high as Pionk’s, but he’s found a way to leave a lasting impression in his first taste of NHL action. He’s also impressed with the Wolf Pack this season – to the tune of 26 points in 44 games. One gets the feeling that if Gilmour was a few inches taller and had a right-handed shot like Pionk, there would be a lot more buzz around him.
Gilmour and Pionk are both considered to be defensemen with offensive upside, so it was encouraging to see them both pick up their first NHL points on Tuesday night.
Pionk’s first point was a secondary assist that any defenseman would be proud of. He blocked a shot and moved the puck out of his zone to Michael Grabner, who then set up Kevin Hayes for a power play goal. Defense into offense.
Gilmour’s first point in the NHL also came on the power play. Halfway through the first period on Tuesday he ripped a one-timer set up by Tony DeAngelo past Devan Dubnyk. It was a big goal for the Rangers, who found themselves down 3-0 in the first ten minutes of the first period.
When we evaluate Gilmour and Pionk it’s crucial to do so with some perspective. One week ago these guys were in the AHL. Today they’re three games into an unexpected trial with an NHL team defined by its injuries and status as a seller. The fuse that will blow this team up on deadline has already been lit, but somehow Pionk, Gilmour, and DeAngelo have helped the Rangers win two of their last three games. For a team that has had headaches on the blue line since October, that’s a pretty big deal.