The Winnipeg Jets and restricted free agent defenceman Neal Pionk only officially put pen to paper on a new four-year, $23.5 million contract on Wednesday, but according to the 26-year-old blueliner, he’s already been getting some jabs from his down-home buddies.
“We kind of met in the middle, so to speak,” Pionk said of his negotiations with the Jets on Thursday. “Maybe some people will say I left money on the table, but my good friends say I’m overpaid. Depends who you ask. I’m just really excited it worked for both sides and that I’m able to be part of the team for the next four years.”
Excited, he should be. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Jets have taken it upon themselves to have one of the busiest and productive offseasons in team history. Bringing in fellow defenders Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt in separate trades just 24 hours apart has all of Jets Nation on its feet in celebration of the drastic improvement to the team’s defensive corps.
Pionk, who has really only been with Winnipeg for two seasons, can already sense a significant push for a long and deep playoff run based on some of the personnel changes over the first half of the offseason.
“I am really excited about it,” he said. “Obviously, we have a winning window. I see us as contenders too. You make those signings and bringing back Stas and making those trades, they are huge for our team and I am excited to get going… From a team perspective, I think we have a great chance to win. We bolstered our blueline, we know the forward group that we have, and we have Helle in net. So I think it increases our chances to win by a lot.”
Despite never having spent significant time on a team with either Nate Schmidt or Brenden Dillon, Pionk did suit up alongside Schmidt in a summer league tournament a number of years ago in his home state of Minnesota.
“So I know Schmitty a little bit,” he reflected. “I think we played in Da Beauty League down in Minneapolis a few years ago. We played together and against each other. We had a couple of short conversations. He’s a ball of energy so he’ll be bringing a lot of life to the locker room for sure. When I say short conversations, I mean he talked and I listened. So yeah, you can never have enough Minnesota guys on the team, that’s for sure.”
Dillon, on the other hand, has battled against Pionk with both the Jets and his former New York Rangers. Having spent time in San Jose before joining the Washington Capitals, Dillon has certainly been an opponent that neither Pionk nor his teammates have enjoyed facing off against.
“I’ve heard good things,” Pionk said of his new teammate, and potential defence partner. “Obviously, hockey’s a pretty small world so I’ve heard really good things about him. As a player who’s played against him, I know our forwards hated playing again him. He’s one of those guys you hate playing against him but you want to have him on your team badly. So I was really happy to see that we picked him up.”
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In terms of his preparation for the coming 2021-22 hockey season, Pionk will need to slightly re-tool is plan of attack as his defensive partner from last season, Derek Forbort, parted ways with the Jets via free agency (Boston) alongside longtime Jets blueliner Tucker Poolman.
“It’s tough,” Pionk said of the two departures. “That’s the business side of the game that really sucks. You become good friends with some of those guys and obviously we stayed in contact through the summer. I’ve texted all three of them congrats on the new deals. But we’re definitely going to miss them around the locker room.”
That said, The six-foot, 190-pound defenceman has already turned his attention to upcoming season. With a number of options in play for a new partner, Pionk knows that communication will be the key to success moving forward.
“There’s a lot of possibilities,” he said. “The biggest thing for me going into camp is if I do play with somebody new that came in a trade or maybe it’s a recent signing, is to get to know him as well as I can. It might be something as little as having a conversation off the ice. And not only that but getting to know their tendencies on the ice, watching the littlest things that they do, maybe have a conversation about how you’d like to play a certain play, what kind of plays you like to make with the puck. So the faster you can build that chemistry, the better off you’re going to be.”
In helping the Jets and their salary cap crunch by opting to stick around for a longer time at a lower cost, Pionk knows he will be a valued asset moving forward. But one thing he did make clear: he was not interested in his August 13 court date.
“I don’t think either side really wants to go to arbitration,” he said. “Obviously I’ve heard it’s kind of a messy process. We came to a conclusion that this was the best deal for both sides.”