The Rangers’ Potential Pionk Problem

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With each passing day, we are slowly stepping closer to the 2019 Entry Draft, and in turn, closer to the start of free agency. The Rangers, who are in their second consecutive year of missing the playoffs, are gearing up for an eventful offseason.

There are a considerable amount of questions leading to this offseason such as: If they do go after a big fish free agent, who would it be? Will the Rangers get Kaapo Kakko or Jack Hughes with the second overall pick? Will Kreider be traded? Which blueline player could be bought out? Any offer sheets in play this offseason? This is just the tip of the iceberg for the Rangers heading into the draft and free agency. Let’s dive deeper into one of the smaller fish the Rangers need to fry.

Neal Pionk is a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason. With the signing of Adam Fox, the emergence of Tony DeAngelo, as well as the large contracts of Marc Staal, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, and Brendan Smith, there is little room for Neal Pionk.

Pionk’s Season in Review

The undrafted Minnesota native played significant minutes for the Blueshirts this past season. Along with an average ice time of over 21 minutes, the 23-year-old registered 26 points (6G, 20A). The unfortunate side of this season was the -16 he had to show for himself, which was tied for second worst on the team. Granted, this Rangers team had a goal differential of -46 and the best +/- on the team was only at a +6, it still shows that Pionk has a long way to go before he’s considered to be a match for NHL stars.

The bright side for Pionk is that he was second in ice time for a skater, only behind Brady Skjei, and that he was only one powerplay assist shy from tying Mika Zibanejad’s team-leading 12 assists. Pionk has shown flashes of an offensive game that could make him valuable to the Rangers, but it means nothing if his defense isn’t up to the task.

Qualifying Offer and Arbitration

Neal Pionk is in his second year with the Rangers and his contract is now up which means that the Rangers may extend a qualifying offer to him. Currently, Pionk’s base salary is sitting at $825,500, and since this is between $660,000 and $1 million, the Rangers must offer Pionk at least 105% of his previous salary. This qualifying offer now becomes a one-year deal sitting at a base salary of $874,125. That is if Pionk decides to accept this offer. More often than not, players head to arbitration if they are eligible and the team’s and player’s representatives plead their case to a third party. This is to determine what next season’s salary will be, based on performance and what other similar players from around the league received at this age. But we all know that, as well as the three choices that the Rangers can take after the arbitration hearing is through: Accept the one-year deal set by the arbitrator, reject the deal and have Pionk become an unrestricted free agent, or negotiate a new contract before the arbitration is finalized (or before hitting arbitration in the first place). If the Rangers do indeed extend Pionk to anything other than the qualifying/arbitration deal, then it will be for two or three years, most likely capping out at $1 million per year. There is no reason that the Rangers will need to dig themselves a bigger hole at this point for an unproven defenseman.

Trade Scenarios

The bottom line for Neal Pionk is that he is expendable. An RFA on a rebuilding team can be a sticky situation, and even more complicated if the team is ready to take the next step forward in their rebuild. With the significant talent coming to free agency this summer such as Artemi Panarin, Erik Karlsson, Matt Duchene, and Jeff Skinner, the Rangers may need as much salary cap room as possible to make a significant splash. Pionk becomes even more expendable if you factor in the four other RFAs that the Rangers currently need to negotiate with this offseason. The likelihood of re-signing all five RFAs is low and some are due for a big raise such as Pavel Buchnevich. This leads the Rangers to possibly trading Pionk’s rights to another team looking for some depth defensemen if the righthanded d-man seems to want a somewhat similar raise. With Pionk’s limited NHL experience and a poor start to his career, the Rangers could look for a third, fourth or fifth round pick to ship him out. This could most likely come at the Entry Draft in Vancouver this June to help the Blueshirts gain even more draft picks to add to their already impressive collection. Pionk could even be used in a potential ‘blockbuster’ involving Kreider or a lower Rangers draft pick to help them move up to better a draft position. A young righthanded defenseman could help add to the trade, such as the trade the Rangers and Coyotes completed two drafts ago, where we saw Stepan and Raanta go and got back the seventh overall pick and the young Tony DeAngelo. Rumors of these trades may be scarce leading up to the draft, but it does help to keep an open mind and anything can happen at the drop of a hat.

Pionk’s Future

The most likely scenario is that the Rangers do try to give Neal a qualifying offer. Let’s remember that defensemen do take longer to mature and hit their peak in the NHL. Throwing the kid into the fire may not look the prettiest when it comes to development, but it’s the best way to learn. Not one defenseman on the Rangers played 82 games this past season, and all but one had a positive plus/minus (that played at least half of the season). It’s easy to put blame on players that perform poorly in a losing season but lets cut the kid some slack and the fact that he was one of the better defensemen does say something, it might not say a lot, but it’s still something. Neal Pionk, unless he’s traded at the deadline, will probably get a one-year deal for next season to get another shot to prove himself. This is most likely scenario since he will be a very low cost and controllable player and who knows, if he does pan out, he’d have some extra trade value at next years deadline that might allow him to go for a pretty penny.

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