Neal Pionk made his NHL debut on February 9, 2018 and played 18:44 in a victory against the Calgary Flames. At the time, the New York Rangers didn’t know what to expect of the 22-year-old defenseman. Pionk had been with the Hartford Wolf Pack prior to his recall in his first pro season after signing as a free agent from the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Hearing NYR will sign Min-Duluth free agent D Neal Pionk. That's a coup for them, was a lot of interest.— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) May 1, 2017
He stood out a bit during the preseason, scoring a highlight reel goal, but ultimately started the season with the Wolf Pack.
In the game following his debut, Pionk skated just 15:11 in a win over the Winnipeg Jets. At that point, it wasn’t clear how he would be used moving forward, but the Rangers ultimately decided to give the youngster a long look on the top pair. From that point on, he averaged 22:48 a game. In that time, he scored one goal and 13 assists for a total of 14 points.
Pionk drew a ton of attention from a stretch of play that went from March 10 to March 24 — a seven game span in which he tallied a goal and nine assists for 10 points while averaging 23:11 a night.
Neal Pionk extended his point streak to seven games and matched the @NYRangers record for longest by a rookie defenseman, a mark set by Brian Leetch in 1988-89. #NHLStats #BUFvsNYR pic.twitter.com/GOUilwxvai— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) March 25, 2018
His offensive production was impressive and it will be interesting to see if it can be replicated to some extent. Although he only played in 28 games, Pionk finished with more points than teammates like Nick Holden (12 in 55 GP with Rangers), Marc Staal (8 in 72 GP) and on the NHL dot com listing, he was just ahead of NHL defenders including Nikita Zaitsev (13 in 60 GP), Adam Larsson (13 in 63 GP).
While these numbers are good, they don’t tell the whole story of Pionk. Of his 14 points, seven of them came 5-on-5. The good news is that all but one of them was primary. Broken down to a rate, Pionk averaged 0.83 points per 60, and 0.71 primary points per 60.
On the other hand, his underlying numbers were pretty poor — specifically his possession numbers.
These numbers aren’t the greatest, and for context his 5-on-5 deployment saw him start 23.94% of his shifts in the offensive zone, 38.61% of his starts in the defensive zone and 37.45% in the neutral zone. In other words, Pionk was primarily playing a defensive role.
He skated with two partners for the most part during his time with the Rangers, Staal and Brady Skjei.
Pionk started off with Skjei and the duo had some middling results. All things considered the Rel stats could have been worse, although the xGF% and Rel xGF% was just woof. It was a bit surprising considering the offensive acumen of the pair, but it could be looked at as a really bad 118 minutes. As a pair, their PDO was 93.52 which suggests that they were criminally unlucky and probably should have been kept together to work things out.
Pionk’s numbers with Staal were also negative, but more favorable in terms of xGF% and Rel xGF% — but I don’t think that’s something to take solace in. The duo’s shot attempt differential was minus-94, and 15 goals were expected to be scored against while they were on the ice which surprisingly, was only minus-1.90 relative to the other pairs. You could conversely point to the fact that the pairing generated an expected goal total of 10.95, but it just points to them playing a fast and loose style together which isn’t conducive to sustainable successful. Neither is the pair’s 105.11 PDO, which suggests they had some serious “luck” on their side. But it’s pretty remarkable that Pionk’s offensive production was better while taking a slightly smaller share of offensive zone starts, with a less offensively inclined partner in Staal.
With all that considered, what type of grade should Pionk get for his season?
Pionk was signed as a college free agent and was on an NHL roster for almost 30 games averaging 22:00 a game. He showed a lot of promise and potential upside of being a top-four defender. It will be interesting to see how he performs next season with a summer of training with playing in the NHL in mind, more consistent deployment, and possibly a more comparable partner.
His skating ability and poise is something that should help him a lot, and moves like this certainly stand out.
Picking up Pionk was a savvy under the radar move by the organization, and he presents a potential solution to a weakness on the right side that the team has been attempting to address in recent years.
All stats are via Corsica unless otherwise noted.
2018 Report Cards: Marc Staal / Mats Zuccarello / Ryan Spooner / Rob O’Gara / Jimmy Vesey / Brendan Smith / Vladislav Namestnikov / Brady Skjei / Steven Kampfer / Jesper Fast / Alexandar Georgiev / Pavel Buchnevich/ Ondrej Pavelec / Kevin Hayes / Alain Vigneault / John Gilmour / Ryan McDonagh