It’s not like he wasn’t due for a raise before, but Neal Pionk has now certainly pushed his way to the front of the line of players set to meet with Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff following the opening weeks of the 2020-21 season.
On Tuesday, the 25-year-old right-shooting defenceman added yet another piece to his professional resume – but this time, not the way one might think. Pionk actually announced the completion of his business administration university program by posting a photo of his degree to his Twitter page.
— Neal Pionk (@NPionk95) February 23, 2021
Currently in the second season of a two-year, $6 million contract signed back on July 21 of 2019, the Jets’ top rearguard should anticipate making nearly double the $3 million he takes home annually if he keeps up his play as demonstrated the past two seasons.
Not to mention the new initials behind his name that he can use as a negotiating tactic moving forward.
Spending two seasons playing for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the right-side defenceman put together 11 goals, 51 points and 69 penalty minutes in 82 regular season games with the Bulldogs. He turned that into an NHL contract with the New York Rangers, where he played two seasons before being acquired by Winnipeg.
The undrafted blueliner previously spoke of how he dealt with not being selected by an NHL team during his years of eligibility.
“When I was growing up, I went through the draft the first couple years and didn’t get picked,” Pionk reflected. “So then the last year when I didn’t get picked it really put a chip on my shoulder and motivated me to prove them all wrong. Sometimes it works to your advantage, because after college I was free to sign with whoever I wanted as well.”
Spending time at UMD not only equipped him in the field of business-admin but also that of a successful hockey career and many friendships to which he believes will last a lifetime. Calling it the “two best years of my life”, UMD certainly left an impression on the Hermantown, MN. product.
“Just the comradely that you have with your college teammates was great,” he said. “You’re in class together from 9:00 AM to noon, and then you’re practicing together and then you might have a night class with your teammates from 5:00-6:00. And then you hang out together. I lived in a house with six guys, so you’re a real close team no matter what.”
Pionk’s play through his time with the Jets has gone from good to great. Looked upon as the centrepiece in what has now shifted from ‘The Jacob Trouba Trade’ to the ‘Neal Pionk Trade’, the incoming defenceman has done nothing but impress with his play both offensively and defensively. Putting together highlight reel clips of both his offensive acumen and his thunderous bodychecks, the American is certainly feeling right at home in Manitoba.
“He’s an exceptional player,” his coach Paul Maurice said. “Eventually, Neal will be appreciated, in part because he plays in Canada. If he was playing in a less scrutinized market, his game might quietly be under-appreciated. But we certainly appreciate it here.”
But it isn’t just his coach noticing his play.
“He’s been really solid for us,” said Jets forward Kyle Connor. “He can run a power play, he’s great at getting the pucks through. When he’s up top, he finds the good lanes and doesn’t seem to get it blocked very much. He plays hard, too. I mean you saw him against (Connor) McDavid a lot of times out there. Great speed and closing ability, good stick. He kind of does everything really well, and has been one of our best defencemen this year.”
With three goals and 15 points in 18 games, Pionk currently sits just one point out of a four-way tie for third in defensive scoring league-wide.
“He’s amazing,” Mark Scheifele added. “You see he puts his heart on his sleeve every single night and he battles for us and does everything. From PP to PK to 5-on-5, whatever it is, he’s battling his hardest and he’s giving it his all. That’s all you can ask of the guy and he does a fantastic job.”
Now with a university degree officially tied to his name, opponents facing off against the six-foot, 190-pound defenceman may even come to expect a smarter player on the Jets’ blueline.