WINNIPEG — Neal Pionk still speaks softly, though nobody is wondering anymore if he can carry a big stick.
When it comes to the Winnipeg Jets defenceman, he arrived with big shoes to fill, following the June 2019 trade that brought him over from the New York Rangers (along with a 2019 first-round draft pick that turned into Ville Heinola) for fellow blue-liner Jacob Trouba.
The reaction to the move made by Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff in the days leading up to the draft was swift and mostly negative, much like it was last month when Pierre-Luc Dubois was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets for forwards Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic.
How could the Jets send the ninth-overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, a guy who was playing top-pairing minutes and just produced a career-high 50 points and only get a relatively unknown and undrafted college free agent in return?
It was a reasonable question on the surface, though the answer has become more apparent over the course of time.
This wasn’t about where the players were at back then, it had more to do with the level the Jets were projecting Pionk might eventually reach.
The truth of the matter was that most people hadn’t seen Pionk play a single NHL game, let alone be able to pick him out of a crowd.
Most observers had no idea what the organization was getting in return.
It turns out the Jets had done their due diligence and received a more-than-capable D-man who has turned out to be an outstanding fit.
Pionk had his fingerprints all over Monday’s 6-5 victory over the Edmonton Oilers at Rexall Place and no, that’s not a misprint.
The defenceman had a massive impact in a game that saw the Jets take a 4-1 lead to chase Mike Smith after 11 shots on goal, only to see the Oilers even the score 5-5 early in the third period before captain Blake Wheeler responded with the game-winner at 6:22 on a nifty redirection.
Despite the high-octane offensive outburst that was reminiscent of a Smythe Division battle right out of the 1980s, there was Pionk battling along the boards and delivering a jarring check on Oilers centre Leon Draisaitl in the latter stages of the contest as the Jets attempted to preserve a one-goal lead.
There was Pionk, physically engaged in numerous battles with Oilers captain Connor McDavid — including one at the defensive blue line where Pionk appeared to take a stick in the face that went unpenalized.
No matter, Pionk didn’t look for an official to plead his case, he simply dusted himself off during the stoppage in play and got ready for his next shift.
And there was Pionk, chipping in another two assists as his offensive numbers continue to rise.
“They’re two of the best players in the world. To go toe-to-toe with them, it’s fun competing against them and it’s fun playing against them,” said Pionk, who is up to 12 points in 15 games. “Obviously, it’s a challenge every night, but we got it done.”
It wasn’t always pretty and it’s never easy, but Pionk’s ability to handle the shutdown role alongside free-agent acquisition Derek Forbort has been a massive development as the Jets improved to 9-5-1 to start a four-game road trip.
Never mind that Pionk is a bit undersized, his skill set, compete level and ability to get inside leverage allow him to not only survive, but often thrive against the opponent’s top players.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice and his staff are comfortable using Pionk in any situation — and it’s easy to see why.
“He’s been really solid for us,” said Jets left-winger 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 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.”
One minor correction to that final statement from Connor: Pionk has been the best defenceman for the Jets to this point — and that’s not meant to take anything away from the play of his regular partner, Forbort.
Pionk and Forbort spent the summer skating together in Duluth, Minn., and it’s clear they used the time wisely and developed some chemistry that has carried over into this compressed season.
“I always knew who he was. I actually played hockey with and against his younger brother growing up, so I knew the family a little bit and of course knew who he was,” said Pionk, who recorded a career-best 45 points in 71 games with the Jets last season. “He’s a pretty laid-back guy, has a pretty good sense of humour. Then on the ice, his hockey IQ is pretty high. It’s been fun playing with him.”
As you can see, Pionk prefers to let his play do the talking for him.
When he does speak, he chooses his words carefully and doesn’t get overly emotional.
Not only is Pionk concise and to the point, he never draws attention to himself.
Consider the reaction to this query, seeking a quick comment about what it’s been like to take on a role with so much responsibility attached to it since joining the Jets.
“It’s great having the trust of the coaching staff along with the great players that surround me,” said Pionk. “It makes my job easy.”
Pionk isn’t here to be a quote machine, he’s focused on more important tasks.
Besides, his Jets teammates are more than happy to keep tossing compliments in his direction.
“He’s amazing,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele, who had a goal and three points to extend a personal points streak to seven games. “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.”
Maurice doesn’t think Pionk is going to fly under the radar much longer, not with all the attention being paid across the country after the creation of the North Division.
“He’s an exceptional player. Eventually, Neal will be appreciated, in part because he plays in Canada,” said Maurice. “If he was playing in a less scrutinized market, his game might quietly be underappreciated. But we certainly appreciate it here.”
Ramblings: Coaching Change in Calgary, MacKinnon Out Friday, Wilson in More Trouble? (Mar 6) – dobberhockey.com
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise given his current injury situation, but Brent Seabrook has announced his retirement. Seabrook will be remembered as a top-pairing blueliner on what might have been the most successful team of the past decade. His career ends with a long list of accomplishments, including three Stanley Cups, World Junior and Olympic gold medals, and over 1000 games over a 15-year career. All the best to him in retirement.
In case you missed it, I wrote a fantasy take on the late-night coaching change in Calgary. Geoff Ward is out, and Darryl Sutter is back in the saddle(dome).
Sutter is expected to report to the Flames on Monday after clearing COVID protocol, so assistant coach Ryan Huska will be the interim coach for the Flames’ weekend games on Saturday in Edmonton and Sunday against Ottawa.
To expand on what I wrote last night, I think there’s going to be a major shakeup in Calgary if this team does not make the playoffs or even exits the first round early. I wonder if it will involve general manager Brad Treliving, who has overseen high turnover behind the bench since he took over in 2014. Remember all those trade rumors surrounding Johnny Gaudreau? Watch his numbers, as he will be one step closer from being traded out of Calgary if he doesn’t thrive under Sutter’s defensive system.
Some good news for the Rangers, as Igor Shesterkin is considered day-to-day with a mild groin strain. Alexandar Georgiev is expected to start Saturday’s game in New Jersey, however. For more starting goalie updates, be sure to check Goalie Post.
Nathan MacKinnon was not in lineup Friday. You may remember that he took a hit to the head during Wednesday’s game against San Jose. With MacKinnon out of the lineup, Nazem Kadri moved up to the top line alongside Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. Tyson Jost moved up to take Kadri’s spot between Brandon Saad and Andre Burakovsky.
With all the line juggling, Saad had success in scoring a goal and adding two assists. It seemed to help him break out of his funk, as he had not recorded a point in his previous six games. Who knew that Jost would be an upgrade on Kadri?
I’m going to give you lots of overtime highlights today. Valeri Nichushkin scored two goals on seven shots, including this overtime winner while wearing the Nordiques jerseys. Debate whether the Avalanche should be wearing those jerseys if they took the team from Quebec City, but they look amazing anyway.
Credit where credit is due: Rickard Rakell recorded an assist, extending his point streak to four games. He’s recorded six points and taken 15 shots over that span. Rakell is far and away the Ducks’ leader in shots with 76 (over three shots per game). Even though he has only three goals, the fact that he’s shooting the puck is a great sign. With just a 3.9 SH%, more of those shots eventually have to go in. For that reason, he might be worth a pickup in your league.
Speaking of hits to the head, here’s Tom Wilson doing Tom Wilson things again. It seems inconceivable that Wilson did not even receive a penalty on the hit, at least for charging if you don’t think Wilson was aiming for the head or that Carlo moved. Given Wilson’s history, a suspension should be forthcoming, as long as the NHL’s wheel of justice doesn’t land on the wrong number. You love all that he can provide in your bangers league, but this is the risk you take in owning him.
According to Bruce Cassidy, Carlo was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Even if the league doesn’t think this hit is as ugly as it looks, that won’t help Wilson’s cause.
Jarred Tinordi earned the respect of his new teammates by taking on Wilson in the second period.
If revenge is best served on the scoreboard, the Bruins got theirs with a 5-1 win. Brad Marchand (of all people) powered the Bruins with two goals and an assist, which gives him 27 points over 21 games. That scoring pace (1.29 PTS/GP) is similar to what he has produced in the past three seasons. However, his 24.5 SH% is much higher than normal. I don’t think this is a case of selling high on Marchand, since this is his usual pace.
Marchand also gave his thoughts on the hit (Spoiler: Even he thought the hit was ********).
Alex DeBrincat scored twice with five shots on goal in the Blackhawks’ 4-3 shootout win over Tampa Bay. I was going to write about DeBrincat, but Frozen Tools took care of that for me. Maybe they’ll take care of my entire Ramblings if I ask nicely.
Okay, I’ll pick one out on my own. Alex Killorn scored a goal and an assist in a losing cause. More notably for multicategory leaguers, he took eight shots. This is notable because Killorn took a total of eight shots over his previous six games combined. Killorn has two points in each of his last two games while playing on the Steven Stamkos line.
Although no goals were scored, this sequence is worth watching anyway because there was so much going on.
Mike Hoffman scored the overtime winner on a delayed penalty call. He also added an assist on Perron’s game-tying goal with under a minute to play.
Ryan O’Reilly assisted on all three Blues goals, which gives him nine points over his past seven games.
For the Kings, Dustin Brown fired eight shots while scoring a power-play goal. Brown had been held without a point in his previous three games.
Rasmus Kupari, who has scored nine points in eight AHL games this season, made his NHL debut on Friday. He received 10 minutes of icetime while on a line with Adrian Kempe and Trevor Moore. View Kupari’s Dobber Prospects profile.
Just another Kirill Kaprizov highlight – one of his two assists in this game. Who says assists are boring?
At 6’3″, 223 lbs., Marcus Foligno provides hits, and lots of them. So when I needed help in the hits category in my multicategory league and didn’t want to sacrifice scoring, I decided to add him earlier this week. He continued to provide that scoring touch, adding two assists on Friday to give him six points over his past three games and 10 points in his last seven games.
The Wild are finding scoring from all kinds of different sources this season, and the Foligno – Joel Eriksson Ek – Jordan Greenway line has been surprisingly strong. All three players are now within the top five in Wild team scoring, while more familiar names such as Kevin Fiala, Zach Parise, and Matt Dumba are not.
As for hits, which is the reason I added Foligno? Just one in this game. Can’t have it all, I guess. Foligno is also a plus-10 and is even picking up power-play time. The advanced stats (33.3 SH%, 5-on-5 SH%, 3.0 PTS/60, 1055 PDO) scream regression, which makes sense for a player whose 25 points last season is his highest over a 10-year career. Still, he’s a legitimate bangers league option with his hits and penalty minute totals combined with the recent scoring touch.
One more overtime winner for you. Should we be surprised that it’s a goal from Max Pacioretty and an assist from Mark Stone? It’s the third overtime winner of the season for Patches, who scored twice in this game and added another assist with five shots on goal.
Yes, I realize Alex Pietrangelo fed him the pass this time. However, Stone’s point total (5 G, 21 A) has become rather assist-heavy. It shouldn’t be a major gripe if you own Stone, as he’s currently in the top 10 in points.
Vegas had a 3-0 lead in this game, but the Sharks managed to creep back after that. Kevin Labanc scored with just over a minute to play to tie the game. With also adding an assist, Labanc now has eight points over his past six games. He’s receiving first-line minutes with Logan Couture and Evander Kane and first-unit power-play time, so he doesn’t have to worry about making things happen on his own anymore. He’s owned in just 6 percent of Yahoo leagues, so he might be worth adding to your watch list at minimum.
Erik Karlsson‘s assist on Matt Nieto‘s goal on Friday was his first primary assist since January 22. That’s a span of 11 games without a primary assist, interrupted by injury of course. Karlsson picked up another helper, which gives him three points in the four games since returning from injury.
After allowing three goals on eight shots, Martin Jones was pulled for the fifth time in 15 starts. That’s as much as you need to know about Jones and why he shouldn’t be on your fantasy team.
For more fantasy hockey discussion, or to reach out to me, you can follow me on Twitter @Ian_Gooding
Mark Messier on Walter Gretzky: He made you ‘feel good about yourself’ – Sportsnet.ca
Many Canadians have fond memories and stories of meeting Walter Gretzky, whether it was in a hockey arena, at a charity event or perhaps somewhere in Brantford, Ont. Mark Messier is no different.
The six-time Stanley Cup champion got to know Walter and the Gretzky family while he played with Wayne Gretzky on the Edmonton Oilers in the 80s. Walter, known as Canada’s beloved hockey dad, passed away at the age of 82 on Thursday.
To Messier, Walter was a good friend to everyone.
“Walter always had a way of making you feel good about yourself,” Messier told Arash Madani and Stephen Brunt on Friday’s edition of Sportsnet Today. “Even after we’d be down on ourselves after a tough loss, he had a nice way of keeping things in perspective. He’d always turn the page and [be] looking forward to the next game.”
There was a big focus on family in Edmonton, Messier said, with not only teammates becoming great friends but also the players’ parents forging their own relationships with each other.
Messier said that Wayne and Walter had a “beautiful relationship,” noting that Walter along with wife Phyllis Gretzky were instrumental in making The Great One the person he is today.
“Walter and Phyllis did an amazing job of keeping Wayne grounded, protecting him when they needed to, exposing him when it was needed,” Messier said. “But I think the life lessons that Walter and Phyllis passed down to Wayne has shone through his career. Wayne had time for everybody.”
Just like many other Canadian families, Messier said the Gretzky family was hard-working and always made an effort to be good citizens.
“They didn’t lose sight of the fact that the most important things were keeping your integrity and being honest and being truthful, and I think those are the Canadian characteristics that we all can recognize in great people, and Wayne had it because of his parents.”
With Wayne’s massive success in the NHL, Walter quickly became a public figure and a Canadian icon on his own. In hindsight of the celebrity status he developed during his life, Messier said Walter was “pretty shy” when he first got to know him and that Walter tried to stay out of the spotlight.
“It became evident to him later on—he became a celebrity in his own right,” Messier said. “He was on the speaking circuit, the charity circuit, watching youth hockey games, being invited to events. I think he really embraced it after a while.
“I think he actually really felt responsibility to give back. He understood the gravity of the situation where he could be helpful to young boys and girls.”
Philipp Kurashev scores in shootout as Blackhawks beat Lightning – Sportsnet.ca
Alex DeBrincat scored twice and Dominik Kubalik added a goal in regulation for the Blackhawks, who lost their first three games to the Lightning this season. Malcolm Subban made 39 saves, plus three more in the shootout.
“We were resilient tonight,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said. “We gritted it out, whether it’s the saves we got or the penalty kills. We blocked a lot of shots and got clears when we needed to.”
Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Ryan McDonough scored for the Lightning, and Curtis McElhinney stopped 24 shots.
Chicago improved to 4-1-1 in its past six games and snapped Tampa Bay’s six-game winning streak. On Thursday night, the Lightning won 3-2 in overtime on Alex Killorn’s buzzer-beating goal.
“They were probably better last night, and we win,” Tampa Bay coach John Cooper said. “Both teams probably know who was a little better tonight, and they end up winning. It comes out even.”
McDonough made it 3-2 off a big rebound 3:20 into the third period, jumping on Killorn’s drive and beating Subban from 10 feet.
Kubalik tied it 1:40 later by poking home the fluttering shot of defenceman Duncan Keith for his fourth goal in six games.
Overtime started with a flurry of chances for both teams. McElhinney stopped Patrick Kane on a pair breakaways in the first two minutes, and Tampa Bay also had several odd-man chances. Subban held strong despite a hard collision with Steven Stamkos, then denied Victor Hedman, Brayden Point and Stamkos in the shootout.
“We gave up a lot of chances, a lot of breakaways he stopped, and he’s the reason we won,” DeBrincat said.
Tampa Bay scored twice in the first 11 minutes, only to see Chicago tie it early in the second period.
Cirelli got behind Keith and rebounded Point’s shot at 2:51 for his third goal in four games. Killorn made it 2-0 at 10:27 with a power-play goal, tipping Hedman’s shot from the high slot.
DeBrincat scored less than three minutes later. The 100th goal of his NHL career was a power-play goal, a wrist shot from the left circle with Blake Coleman off for hooking.
DeBrincat, who had 18 goals in 70 games last season, scored his 14th in 21 games this year 7:08 into the second period, parking low in the left circle before one-timing a pass from Kane to tie it.
“This is a tough challenge,” McDonough said of the three-game series with Chicago. “We’ve got one more crack at them in a couple of days and have to take advantage of it.”
Blackhawks defenceman Calvin DeHaan crumpled to the ice after blocking Ondrej Palat’s snapshot 2:12 into the final period and eventually limped to the bench. He went to the locker room and did not return.
Tampa Bay played only two overtime games in its first 20 contests but were taken to overtime for the second game in two nights by the Blackhawks, running their season total to four. Columbus and Carolina were the other teams to force the Lightning past 60 minutes, and only Carolina scored a victory.
Blackhawks defenceman Brent Seabrook received a video tribute on the scoreboard Friday night, hours after he announced his retirement because of injuries, saying his right hip wouldn’t heal enough to allow him to play following surgery. Seabrook was a key part of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup winning teams in 2010, 2013 and 2015, as well as Canada’s 2010 Olympic champions.
Tampa Bay and Chicago conclude their three-game series on Sunday at United Center.
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