The NHL is a different place in 2017. With the advancement of analytics and systems, the increased speed and skill, and almost-extinction of the “goon” it’s like a whole new sport. Now, if you’re smaller than the prototypical center, or defenseman you have a chance in the NHL. You no longer have to be a hulking beast capable of rubbing people off the puck in the corners or protecting your star player with your fists. Or at least that’s what one college player is hoping.
Neal Pionk was passed over in his draft year due to his small size—5’11”, 170-lbs on the most generous of measurements—but is turning heads with his strong play at the University of Minnesota-Duluth as a sophomore. After scoring 17 points in an up-and-down rookie season, Pionk has 24 points in 30 games and is showing that he may be able to compete at the next level after all. Craig Custance of ESPN reports that as many as 20 teams have expressed interest in the Bulldog, including the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who can sign college free agents in March like any other team (provided their final expansion payment goes through without a hitch).
Pionk attended the Washington Capitals development camp in 2015 before heading to school. It will be interesting to see if Washington will be back in the mix to sign him when his season ends. The right-handed defenseman likely has so many suitors because not only does he possess the puck-moving skill that usually accompanies the smaller defenseman at this level, but also has a slight nasty streak that leads him to physically challenge opposing forwards as well. Some might liken his play to Connor Carrick of the Toronto Maple Leafs (and previously those same Washington Capitals), who doesn’t let his height dictate the type of game he plays.
While this year’s crop of NCAA free agents doesn’t have a huge name leading the way, players like Pionk can still be valuable assets to any team. Look for Vegas to go hard after several of them as it tries to add depth to a system that will have very little of it to start. The Minnesota native is already 21 (and will turn 22 in July), meaning he’ll have to adapt quickly to the increased difficulty of the AHL and beyond, but if that many teams are interested, he’ll likely have a fighting chance.