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2019 Report Card: Neal Pionk

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Pionk’s first full NHL season saw him shoulder a heavy load on New York’s blue line. Did he manage it?

New York Rangers v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

After breaking into the NHL in the aftermath of the Rangers’ 2018 trade deadline fire sale, the 2018-19 campaign was Neal Pionk’s first full season on Broadway. With the right side of New York’s defense consisting of an initially unproven Tony Deangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk returning from a multi-month knee injury, and stopgap veteran Adam McQuaid, Pionk had a prime opportunity to establish himself as a core piece of the Rangers’ defense corps. The results were as follows:

Boxcar Stats: 73 GP (+45), 6 G (+5), 20 A (+7), 35 PIM (+23), 13 Powerplay Points (+8), 132 SOG (+78), 21:10 TOI/GP (-1:13), +1 Penalty Differential (+4)

“Analytical” Metrics: 0.46 P/60 (-0.37), -2.49 Relative CF% (+2.58), -7.35 Relative GF% (-19.51), -2.71 Relative xGF% (+3.80), 98.49 On-Ice PDO (-3.56), -1.3 GAR/82 (+10.31)

From the time of his recall last year to about the end of the 2018 calendar year, Pionk’s on-ice play became the latest battleground in the ever raging stats vs eye test “debate”. Pionk’s highlight reel goal in the 2017 pre-season out him on the organizational map for plenty of fans, and his steady point production down the stretch of the 2017-18 season was one of few bright spots the Rangers got to enjoy.

The incredible goals continued into the 2018-19 season, with his end-to-end rush against the Montreal Canadiens in November serving as the highlight of his season:

Pionk’s point production and favorable goal results were undermined by porous shot and chance metrics against him whenever he hopped over the boards, and that was the story for the remainder of the 2018 calendar year. The 36 games Pionk skated in from October through December saw him post a 5-14-19 stat line overall, as well as a positive relative Goals For% at 5-on-5, but he continued to drag down shot and chance differentials across the board. Much like the Blueshirts’ season, it was all downhill for Pionk once the calendar turned over to 2019.

Pionk remained in the red in terms of shot and scoring chance differentials, but the bright spots in his game all but disappeared. Pionk sat as a healthy scratch on occasion down the stretch, but still dressed for 37 games. In those games, Pionk put up a paltry 1-6-7 stat line, and failed to score more than 3 points in any single month. His respectable goal differential at evens vanished into the abyss, as his +24/-25 mark from 2018 looks immaculate compared to the +14/-32 mark he compiled from January on. Those splits resulted in a difference of -18.48 in relative Goals For%, and that statistic has led to a change in the narrative surrounding Pionk.

As a pending restricted free agent, Jeff Gorton has a decision to make regarding Pionk. A long term deal is out of the question, as betting on skaters with sub-par results through roughly 100 games as they approach their peaks is never a good decision. The arguments that will be waged around Pionk will be based on whether or not to extend him a qualifying offer and look to reach a short term “bridge” deal with him.

Graphic via Tableau Public
Data recorded by Corey Sznajder and CJ Turtoro

With Shattenkirk and DeAngelo clamping down on the top two spots on the right side of New York’s blue line, there isn’t a pressing need to keep Pionk in New York. Capable bottom pairing defenders can be found every August and September on one year deals for near league minimum, and even Pionk’s qualifying offer of $874,125 would cost more than the 2019 version of Freddy Claesson or Raphael Diaz. A multi-year deal would easily clear $2 million per year, and based on his results so far, that doesn’t seem like an idea Jeff Gorton should entertain.

A trade would likely fetch a mid-round pick, since right-handed defenders with a pulse can always find a home in the NHL, and open up a roster spot should the Rangers look to bring Yegor Rykov, Nils Lundkvist, or K’Andre Miller to Broadway sooner rather than later.

Personal Grade: D+

Masthead Average: D+ (2 C’s, 1 C-, 1 D+, 5 D’s, 1 F)

When I sat down to write this report card, I figured the numbers surrounding Pionk’s season would paint an ugly picture regarding his performance, as well as his future on Broadway. The negatives I were expecting were there, as he ranked at or near the bottom of most meaningful performance metrics. Shot differentials, scoring chances, even point production, the one thing he initially excelled at, were all in the toilet this season.

What gets lost in that is the fact that his metrics did improve from his stint in the NHL as the 17-18 season winded down, but his dreadful goal differential compared to his previous stint has masked that entirely. One would think jumping from the skeleton squad that the post-2018 deadline Rangers were would hinder his relative shot and chance metrics due to the influx of better players.

The opposite turned out to be the case, and gives a bit of reason for optimism should Pionk hit the ice for opening night in October. However, given the totality of Pionk’s numbers since debuting 14 months ago, as well as the contract it would likely take to retain him, New York’s blue line might be better off with Pionk shipped off to greener pastures.

* Data via NHL.com, Corsica, and Offsides Review

2019 Report Cards: Ryan Strome / Filip Chytil / Brendan Lemieux / Tony DeAngelo / Chris Kreider / Pavel Buchnevich

Poll

How would you grade Neal Pionk’s 2018-19 campaign?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    A+, A, or A-
    (20 votes)
  • 10%
    B+, B, or B-
    (58 votes)
  • 44%
    C+, C, or C-
    (253 votes)
  • 32%
    D+, D, or D-
    (184 votes)
  • 8%
    F
    (49 votes)
564 votes total Vote Now