Neal Pionk, the Rangers and The Expansion Draft
It’s no secret to any Rangers fan that this summer the Rangers seriously need to upgrade their defense. When you take a look around the league it’s not about having a big hulking defense anymore. It’s about having a mobile defense that can skate, join the rush, and make that crucial pass. Having a great shot doesn’t hurt either. The Rangers need to retool their defense this summer and one key move may have already been a step in the right direction: the signing of UMD defensemen Neal Pionk.
When you look at the Rangers current defensive makeup, it really isn’t pretty. Marc Staal and Nick Holden were pylons during these playoffs and as good as Dan Girardi was he still does not fit with this defense going forward. Kevin Klein didn’t play much and he seems to have been lost in the shuffle. GM Jeff Gorton has some tough decision to make this summer. Almost certainly one of Staal or Girardi is gone and Holden and/or Klein could be claimed in the expansion draft by Vegas. In a perfect world, the Rangers re-sign Brenden Smith and keep the Smith-Skjei pairing intact from the playoffs which were, at times, the Rangers best defense pair. They then sign or trade for a bonafide defenseman to play with Ryan McDonagh on the top pair. That leaves one, maybe two spaces open in the bottom pairing. Pionk could very well be competing for that spot.
Pionk was a highly sought after college free agent defensemen this spring. He was initially passed over in his draft year but after his “ok” rookie college season he turned the jets on this past sophomore season, doubled his point output and used his cannon of a shot to score some pretty sweet goals. Take a look at this highlight video provided by the New York Rangers.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) May 18, 2017
As many as 20 teams were interested in signing Pionk after his showing this past year, according to hockey reporter Craig Custance, and rightly fully so. Pionk fits the mold of this new NHL defense model of speed and skill being valued over size. According to SB nation’s College Hockey page, Pionk “is a very good two-way defenseman thanks to his excellent skating ability and agility.” They also praise his ability to “spin his way out of traffic” and his ability to be a great outlet passer. They also mention how he holds himself in the offensive zone very well.
All of these qualities that Pionk possesses are things the Rangers saw and loved and ultimately why they chose to sign him. They’re all qualities that seem to have fallen by the wayside for Staal and Holden as well. Former Ranger Assistant GM, now Hartford Wolfpack GM, Chris Drury said that “Neal was a defenseman [they] targeted for the last two years” and that “his combination of character, compete level, and grit, to go along with the way he plays the game – both offensively and defensively – are the reason why we wanted to add him.” He then added that “every team in the league is looking for a right-handed, puck-moving defenseman.”
Pionk will be 22 at the beginning of next season so he definitely fits the need of youth as well. It will be very interesting to see how he fits within the lineup and how good his training camp and preseason performances are. The one knock on him is his one on one play and how that needs to improve but with the right partner on defense those kinds of things can be masked while Pionk progresses in his pro career.
So who do I see Pionk getting paired with on defense to start to his career? Well, it all depends on how quick he adjusts to the pro game. Shifts with Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei would definitely be beneficial as those two currently the team’s best defensemen and good talent bring out the best in people. If he can thrive with one of them, or at the very least find some chemistry with one of them, the sky’s the limit. If he makes the team though look for him to be in more of a third pair role with some powerplay time. A partnership with Dan Girardi isn’t out of the question on that third pair,
The important thing to remember here though is that although Pionk seems to have all the tools needed to succeed we won’t know just how well he plays until he actually steps on the ice. Some prospects seem to have it all together but then don’t translate well to the pro game. With the Rangers having so few dynamite prospects, hopefully, Pionk lives up to his potential rather than fizzle out.
So, will Pionk make the team? He has an excellent shot, he skates extremely well and holds himself well in the offensive zone. He deserves every chance to make the team. In an interview with the New York Rangers, Pionk says he looks to Nashville Predators defensemen Ryan Ellis as a player he likes to replicate. If he becomes anything like the player Ellis is; the Rangers have a steal on their hands.