The Rangers have asked a lot of Neal Pionk since he made his NHL debut on February 8. The University of Minnesota-Duluth alumni was almost immediately thrown to the wolves after being recalled from the Wolf Pack. Pionk has handled his trial by fire admirably and has even exceeded expectations. In the last 17 games he has shown that he has the quality to be a piece of the puzzle moving forward.
Pionk has shown remarkable consistency amidst the crumbling chaos of the Rangers post-deadline defense. His most frequent collaborators on the blue line have been left handers Marc Staal (143:13 5-on-5 TOI) and Brady Skjei (110:28 5-on-5 TOI). As you can imagine, that has resulted in a lot of ice time for the rookie. Pionk has averaged 21:51 TOI/GP through the last 17 games, which is second only to Skjei. John Gilmour may be drawing eyes because of his goals, but Pionk has become the Rangers top right-handed defenseman.
Pionk has found a way to make an impact at both ends of the ice in his featured role. Since February 8, he leads all Rangers’ defensemen in 5-on-5 points (five assists) and blocked shots (22). Pionk’s possession numbers are somewhere between bad and brutal, but it’s important to remember his inexperience and what is being asked of him. Alain Vigneault has Pionk facing elite NHL forwards after just 48 games of AHL experience this season. Pionk has also had a lot of defensive zone starts on his plate — the only defenseman who has seen a higher proportion of d-zone starts is Staal.
All things considered, Pionk has done quite well and the Rangers have noticed.
“In Neal’s case: he’s not an overly big defenseman, but he’s smart,” Vigneault told the media on March 12. “His gap is good on the ice, he competes. I don’t know if you remember this but in our game in Edmonton there was a big boxing out match between him and Lucic, one of the bigger players in the league, and he just stood there toe-to-toe with him. I like his compete, I like his skill, and he’s smart on the ice.”
Perhaps what’s most exciting about Pionk is that he’s displayed tremendous skating ability and maturity with the puck on the right side. That alone makes him a tremendously valuable prospect moving forward.
The biggest strike against Pionk has always been his size. At 5-foot-11 Pionk is small for an NHL defenseman, but in the last 17 games he’s shown that he’s not one to be pushed around. Pionk takes a lot of hits — more so than any other Rangers’ D during 5-on-5 play — but he also throws plenty of his own. Skjei is the only Ranger defenseman who has been credited with more hits than Pionk since February 8.
Right now the Rangers need to be looking for silver linings and identifying the youngsters who can help transform this team over the next few years. In the last month Pionk has established himself as a leading candidate to be a key cog of the blue line moving forward.