The New York Rangers defense is a work in progress with plenty of flaws throughout the unit, but one shining point was the call-up of defenseman Neal Pionk.
Pionk, 22, was signed by the New York Rangers as an undrafted college free agent on May 1, 2017, after his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota Duluth where he finished fifth among NCAA defensemen in scoring with 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists). That season, the Bulldogs advanced the NCAA championship game before losing to the University of Denver.
The young defenseman enjoyed a solid training camp with the Rangers. He was in the conversation to make the team, but it was decided by the coaching staff that some more time in the AHL would benefit him more.
He did make the decision harder on them after scoring a SportsCenter highlight goal. Pionk pulled off a spin-o-rama move and scored the OT winner giving the Rangers the 1-0 win over the New York Islanders in a preseason game.
Neal Pionk made his NHL debut last season on Feb. 9, 2018, less than a year after he signed with New York, against the Calgary Flames. It was also his debut in front of the hometown fans at the world’s most famous arena Madison Square Garden. Pionk skated for 18 minutes with four hits, three blocks shots and a plus one in a 4-3 win over the Flames.
The defenseman’s career had officially begun with the Rangers.
With New York acknowledging that they were going to break up the veterans on the team and would start a rebuilding process over the next season or two, the young defenseman’s arrival came at a very unsettling time for the franchise.
The defense was at an all season low, as Kevin Shattenkirk was out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury, Nick Holden and Ryan McDonagh would soon be traded along with the surprising acceptance that the Rangers would not make the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Yet none of the reasons were going to stop Neal Pionk from showcasing his defensive attributes. Pionk is fearless on the blueline, backing down from no team or individual player. From the onset, he displayed a characteristic that the team had not seen in several months. He competed on every play, he would put his body and the need to help the team succeed before anything else.
A player who took accountability for his play on the ice, Pionk had several different partners to start off his call-up.
Partnered with Ryan McDonagh to Brady Skjei and fellow rookie teammate John Gilmour, Pionk seemed comfortable on the ice. He seemed most at ease when he was partnered with Marc Staal, yes the player Ranger fans seem to despise the most, as his partner.
Neal Pionk is not your high scoring defenseman
While with the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack, Pionk scored one goal with 17 points in 48 games. Following his call-up to New York, he registered 13 assists with 14 points in 28 games. Scoring is not his forte. He is a playmaking defenseman.
A combination of speed, good puck handling skills, an excellent sense of what is going on the ice around him is the foundation he brings to the table every night.
Make no mistake about this, Pionk is going to make mistakes often. He is a rookie defenseman in the greatest hockey league in the world, but he will learn from his mistakes and excel. He is the player, the defenseman the team needs to build around.
Neal Pionk is more than just a conversation about the Rangers defenseman. He is what the defense can build around. Along with Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei and rookie John Gilmour, the Blueshirts can overcome last years miscues.
A youth movement is a direction the team has decided to go. With Neal Pionk standing tall on the Rangers blueline for a full season this year, the team now has something to build on.