Neal Pionk is having an off year with the Winnipeg Jets

Neal Pionk, Winnipeg Jets (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
Neal Pionk, Winnipeg Jets (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images) /

Neal Pionk had a goal and an assist in the Winnipeg Jets’ New Year’s Eve win against the Edmonton Oilers. He also had two defensive zone giveaways and was a dismal 38.5% Corsi and a 33.6% xGF%. To be fair, the Jets were badly outplayed in this one, and statistically, no Jet faired all that well. The performance however was indicative of the “Pionky Tonk Man’s” overall game this year. It’s feast and it’s famine.

@chevys_abrasive put it nicely:

A look at his full RAPM profile paints an even grimmer picture:

Those 2 very prominent red bars? That’s defense. Pionk is a turnstile and is playing some of the worst defense in the league. His offensive production is nice enough, but it is largely overshadowed by his defensive efforts.

Further evidence rests with his WAR and GAR metrics. Pionk is dead last in both benchmarks relative to his teammates. At -5.2 and -0.9 respectively, the team is objectively worse with him on the ice.

What happened? Was “Captain Chaos” always this bad? We don’t have to venture too far into the past to answer this question in the negative:

That is a good-looking profile. In addition, his WAR and GAR in 2020-2021 were second on the Jets behind only Nik Ehlers. It is confounding how, in two years, Pionk went from a bonafide asset to an abject liability.

He is only 27 years old, which is the prime age for most NHL players, and his skating appears comparable to years past. In 2020-21 Pionk played the majority of his minutes with Derek Forbort, although I refuse to believe that Forbort was any sort of appreciable difference-maker. So what is it?

What happened to Neal Pionk?

This will sound blasphemous, and is pure conjecture on my part – but Pionk got paid. As an undrafted free agent, Pionk played with a chip on his shoulder. When he came to Winnipeg as part of the Trouba trade, Pionk had a nastiness to his game that made him a force to be reckoned with.

After the aforementioned boon season in 2020-21, Pionk became a $6M man. Since that payday, his game has precipitously declined. Now, it is foolhardy to conflate correlation with causation, but Occam’s Razor might just apply here.

Whatever the reason, the Winnipeg Jets need the Neal Pionk from 2020-21 if they want to have any hope of a Stanley Cup run. Pionk was paid to be a leader on this team, and offensive outbursts aside, he has been largely a disappointment this season. Does Heinola need more of his minutes, or would some time in the Press Box help? Time will tell, but unchecked chaos has a habit of wreaking havoc.