WINNIPEG — Neal Pionk still speaks softly, though nobody is wondering anymore if he can carry a big stick.
When it comes to the Winnipeg Jets defenceman, he arrived with big shoes to fill, following the June 2019 trade that brought him over from the New York Rangers (along with a 2019 first-round draft pick that turned into Ville Heinola) for fellow blue-liner Jacob Trouba.
The reaction to the move made by Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff in the days leading up to the draft was swift and mostly negative, much like it was last month when Pierre-Luc Dubois was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets for forwards Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic.
How could the Jets send the ninth-overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, a guy who was playing top-pairing minutes and just produced a career-high 50 points and only get a relatively unknown and undrafted college free agent in return?
It was a reasonable question on the surface, though the answer has become more apparent over the course of time.
This wasn’t about where the players were at back then, it had more to do with the level the Jets were projecting Pionk might eventually reach.
The truth of the matter was that most people hadn’t seen Pionk play a single NHL game, let alone be able to pick him out of a crowd.
Most observers had no idea what the organization was getting in return.
It turns out the Jets had done their due diligence and received a more-than-capable D-man who has turned out to be an outstanding fit.
Pionk had his fingerprints all over Monday’s 6-5 victory over the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place and no, that’s not a misprint.
The defenceman had a massive impact in a game that saw the Jets take a 4-1 lead to chase Mike Smith after 11 shots on goal, only to see the Oilers even the score 5-5 early in the third period before captain Blake Wheeler responded with the game-winner at 6:22 on a nifty redirection.
Despite the high-octane offensive outburst that was reminiscent of a Smythe Division battle right out of the 1980s, there was Pionk battling along the boards and delivering a jarring check on Oilers centre Leon Draisaitl in the latter stages of the contest as the Jets attempted to preserve a one-goal lead.
There was Pionk, physically engaged in numerous battles with Oilers captain Connor McDavid — including one at the defensive blue line where Pionk appeared to take a stick in the face that went unpenalized.
No matter, Pionk didn’t look for an official to plead his case, he simply dusted himself off during the stoppage in play and got ready for his next shift.
And there was Pionk, chipping in another two assists as his offensive numbers continue to rise.
“They’re two of the best players in the world. To go toe-to-toe with them, it’s fun competing against them and it’s fun playing against them,” said Pionk, who is up to 12 points in 15 games. “Obviously, it’s a challenge every night, but we got it done.”
It wasn’t always pretty and it’s never easy, but Pionk’s ability to handle the shutdown role alongside free-agent acquisition Derek Forbort has been a massive development as the Jets improved to 9-5-1 to start a four-game road trip.
Never mind that Pionk is a bit undersized, his skill set, compete level and ability to get inside leverage allow him to not only survive, but often thrive against the opponent’s top players.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice and his staff are comfortable using Pionk in any situation — and it’s easy to see why.
“He’s been really solid for us,” said Jets left-winger Kyle Connor. “He can run a power play, he’s great at getting the pucks through. When he’s up top, he finds the good lanes and doesn’t seem to get it blocked very much.
“He plays hard, too. I mean you saw him against McDavid a lot of times out there. Great speed and closing ability, good stick. He kind of does everything really well, and has been one of our best defencemen this year.”
One minor correction to that final statement from Connor: Pionk has been the best defenceman for the Jets to this point — and that’s not meant to take anything away from the play of his regular partner, Forbort.
Pionk and Forbort spent the summer skating together in Duluth, Minn., and it’s clear they used the time wisely and developed some chemistry that has carried over into this compressed season.
“I always knew who he was. I actually played hockey with and against his younger brother growing up, so I knew the family a little bit and of course knew who he was,” said Pionk, who recorded a career-best 45 points in 71 games with the Jets last season. “He’s a pretty laid-back guy, has a pretty good sense of humour. Then on the ice, his hockey IQ is pretty high. It’s been fun playing with him.”
As you can see, Pionk prefers to let his play do the talking for him.
When he does speak, he chooses his words carefully and doesn’t get overly emotional.
Not only is Pionk concise and to the point, he never draws attention to himself.
Consider the reaction to this query, seeking a quick comment about what it’s been like to take on a role with so much responsibility attached to it since joining the Jets.
“It’s great having the trust of the coaching staff along with the great players that surround me,” said Pionk. “It makes my job easy.”
Pionk isn’t here to be a quote machine, he’s focused on more important tasks.
Besides, his Jets teammates are more than happy to keep tossing compliments in his direction.
“He’s amazing,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele, who had a goal and three points to extend a personal points streak to seven games. “You see he puts his heart on his sleeve every single night and he battles for us and does everything. From PP to PK to 5-on-5, whatever it is, he’s battling his hardest and he’s giving it his all. That’s all you can ask of the guy and he does a fantastic job.”
Maurice doesn’t think Pionk is going to fly under the radar much longer, not with all the attention being paid across the country after the creation of the North Division.
“He’s an exceptional player. Eventually, Neal will be appreciated, in part because he plays in Canada,” said Maurice. “If he was playing in a less scrutinized market, his game might quietly be underappreciated. But we certainly appreciate it here.”