Minnesota-Duluth’s defenseman Neal Pionk has decided to leave his college and pursue a pro hockey contract, per Elliotte Friedman. Colleague Gavin Lee wrote a wonderful piece about the small but hard-nosed defenseman late in this February, which is definitely worth a re-read. The 5’11” defenseman was named USHL defenseman of the year in 2014-15, and potted 7 goals and 27 assists in 42 games to go with his +24 rating this past season. His teammate Alex Iafello signed with the Los Angeles Kings just earlier this afternoon.
Undrafted college talents are all the rage in the modern NHL, and with their relative success at the NHL level, it’s easy to see why. Anyone who watched Jake Guentzel’s hat trick last night may be interested to know that his linemate, Conor Sheary, went undrafted and nearly unsigned out of college. He never had spectacular numbers, and his small stature forced him to sign a PTO with a depleted Wilkes-Barre squad to even get a shot. He posted only 9 goals in 34 games for UMass-Amherst in his senior year before a solid showing of 11 points in 15 games in the Calder Cup Playoffs in 2013-14. Now, he’s playing with Sidney Crosby on the top line of a Cup contender, with a Stanley Cup ring on his mantle at home. It’s easy to see how prospects can get overlooked. Martin St. Louis is always cited as the go-to example for players with extreme success despite going undrafted. With his 1033 career points, lots of teams were certainly kicking themselves that they didn’t take a flyer on the winger. The likely future hall-of-famer gave defensive squads fits with his knack for staying on his feet and making plays. His creativity in playmaking made him an asset right up until the day he retired. So why did so many scouts miss out on him?
Scouting is an imperfect science, as any team official will tell you. At 17 years old, it can be near-impossible to project how mid-level talents will look in 3 years, let alone 7 or 8. For goalies and defensemen this problem is seemingly amplified. Goalies don’t normally hit their stride until their mid-to-late twenties. There are the obvious exceptions, such as John Gibson or Matt Murray, but years of minor league seasoning and perfecting technical aspects of their games can derail seemingly surefire careers. Malcolm Subban is such a case, where he has struggled mightily to convert his Junior dominance into even 20 wins at the AHL level. There is a reason that only two goalies have ever gone first overall – Rick DiPietro who is now out of the league and Marc-Andre Fleury who in hindsight was probably not worthy of the pick in a deep draft.
Defensemen have a particularly tough path in front of them, too. There is a need for physical maturation to make an impact in shutting down top NHL talent. Skating agility and speed need to be upped. The hits are harder, the forecheckers are faster, and players are far better at finding gaps in coverage. While a young forward can sometimes get by with fourth-line duty until the holes in his game are patched, defensemen can be exposed on any single play. The breakouts are more difficult, the pretty passes don’t work quite as well, and you have a second less to make that pivotal decision at the blue line to pinch or retreat. How every teenager deals with these challenges to mold their game varies wildly. The older the defenseman, the easier it is to tell how they are adapting.
So why not take a chance on a 21 or 22 year old defenseman who has shown flashes of brilliance? Late bloomers are in bloom this spring, and Pionk will certainly not be the only collegiate talent to catch the eye of teams looking to restock the cupboards.