New York Rangers young defenseman Neal Pionk continues to impress the hockey world. In other words, Neal is the real deal.
The New York Rangers are more than a quarter of the way through their season and they continue to send shockwaves through the rest of the NHL. The Blueshirts, who were supposedly in the midst of a rebuild, are currently playing high-level hockey while possessing the third spot in the Metropolitan Division standings.
In my opinion, one of New York’s biggest early-season bright spots has been Neal Pionk.
I’ve thought that the youngster’s play has been impressive all season long. However, there are also plenty of people that would disagree with my assessment, as Pionk has emerged as the most hotly debated player among the Garden Faithful. The main worry expressed by the anti-Pionk crowd is in regards to his defensive-zone play.
Despite the concerns, Neal is looking like the real deal.
Through his first 50 NHL games, the 23-year-old defenseman has put up elite numbers. Pionk has tallied 29 points in this span, putting him fourth on the list of most points by a Rangers defenseman through his first 50 career NHL games. He sits behind Brian Leetch, Ron Greschner, and Sergei Zubov. Not bad company to be in for the Minnesota native that went undrafted.
Pionk’s boxcar stats are superb, but that is only one of many factors to weigh when evaluating a player. Pionk also passes the eye test. If you watch the Rangers play, the young blueliner is often the team’s noticeable defenseman. Pionk is a good decision-maker, he is defensively responsible, he blocks shots (he leads the team with 47), he plays with toughness (he ranks third on the team with 43 hits ), he’s on the ice a ton (leads the team in average time-on-ice), he’s a one-man defensive-zone breakout, he has emerged as an excellent power-play quarterback, and he makes some highlight-reel plays.
— Elite Sports NY (@EliteSportsNY) November 7, 2018
His traditional stats are excellent, but the “advanced stats,” also known as the underlying numbers, don’t do Pionk much justice.
Corsi is a stat that measures puck-control when a player is on the ice. A Corsi rating above 50 percent is desired because that means that the player’s team possesses the puck more often than not with that player on the ice. Pionk boasts an even-strength Corsi of 40.8 percent, which is the second-worst mark among Blueshirts that have played more than 10 games this season (Lias Andersson has the lowest Corsi). This suggests that the Rangers spend lots of time pinned in their own zone when Pionk is on the ice.
Another one of these up and coming stats is expected plus-minus. This statistic looks at where shots are taken from when a player is on the ice and uses the league average shooting-percentage from those spots from last season to come up with a number. Pionk’s expected plus-minus is -1.8, which is worse than all of New York’s defensemen other than Brendan Smith. This means that the Rangers are surrendering higher quality shots than they are getting when Pionk is playing. Additionally, Pionk’s actual plus-minus rating thus far this year is -4.
Furthermore, a closer look is needed when looking at Pionk’s production early in the 2018-19 campaign. The Minnesota Duluth product has registered 15 points. On the positive side, 12 of his 15 points have been or the primary variety. On the negative side, only four of his 15 points have come at even strength. Pionk has clearly established himself as a top-tier power-play producer, as he ranks tied for third among NHL defensemen in power-play points, but that begs the question of whether or not Pionk is anything more than a power-play specialist?
I believe that he is. Advanced stats are important and should not be overlooked, but they don’t always tell the full story.
For example, in Pionk’s case, he has been stapled to Marc Staal all season. While Staal has been fine this season, he is not a defenseman that thrives at keeping possession of the puck and exiting the defensive zone. This obviously hurts Pionk’s underlying metrics. Although some stats show otherwise, Pionk has the potential to become a key cog of the Rangers’ future core.
When assessing players, the key is to find a balance between the eye test and all of the different types of stats. In Pionk’s case, the eye test and the boxcar stats paint a better picture. He is a very effective player, who makes his presence felt at both ends of the ice.
If the Rangers want to build upon their solid start to the season, they are going to need guys to continue to step up. Arguably the most pleasant surprise thus far has been the emergence of Neal Pionk, but he must continue to raise his level of play in order for the Blueshirts to sustain their success.