As the New York Rangers try to fight their way through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the front office added Neal Pionk to their blue line.
New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault has had trouble spreading playing time throughout his defensive pairings in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
As soon as next season, he could have another blue liner to fit into the rotation.
On Monday, the organization signed defenseman Neal Pionk to a three-year, entry-level deal. The former University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog was one of the most sought-after young talents, as up to 20 teams had an interest in his services earlier this year. Pionk joins Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey as highly-touted collegiate players to sign with the Rangers in recent years.
The addition of the 21-year-old defenseman is considered a “coup” for New York, per Elliotte Friedman. Despite measuring up on the small end of things (5’11, 185 pounds), Pionk was a handful for opposing teams during his sophomore campaign. Skating on the top pair, he ranked second on the team with 25 assists while also putting in eight goals, good for a plus/minus of +24. He was also viewed as the quarterback of the power play and added five goals in man-up situations. Pionk also willingly puts his body on the line, as evidenced by blocking 70 shots.
The blueliner possesses the quality combination of offensive prowess and physicality. Despite his slight frame, Pionk’s toughness and blue collar play will be a much-needed addition to the Rangers defense. His offensive skills are also above average as he was one of the best skaters at this position. Pionk has also been praised for his vision and awareness in the offensive zone, another need for the Blueshirts.
While it could be an uphill climb, he is expected to compete for a spot on the Rangers roster next season.
Not only is there a logjam at the NHL level — Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein, and Nick Holden are all under contract next season — but the organization has a handful of young talents as well; They re-sign Steven Kampfer earlier this year, brought Alexei Bereglazov over from the KHL, and have Ryan Graves in the AHL.
But with GM Jeff Gorton expecting do try his best and shop Staal, Girardi, and Klein, Pionk could step in and make a difference on day one. His advantage of youth, having a right-handed shot, and skillset could make him a viable option for Vigneault. A pairing of Pionk and Skjei could be the youthful tandem that jumpstarts the next phase of defenseman in New York.
There will be a ton of high hopes surrounding Pionk once Training Camp begins.
Those high hopes are a commonplace on Broadway — and if he could turn into the player he’s capable of becoming, Rangers fans won’t have to worry about the old guard on defense much longer.