After many teams tried to court University of Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Neal Pionk this spring, the young free agent has decided on the New York Rangers. The team did not reveal any details on the contract, but it will be a three-year entry-level deal and likely start next season. As recently as February up to twenty teams were after Pionk, including the Washington Capitals who even had him attend their development camp in 2015. The small-but-fiesty defenseman has a cannon of a shot and could legitimately make the jump to the NHL as soon as next season.
Unlike many college free agents, Pionk is only 21-years old and still has a lot of time to develop his game in the right system. New York seems a perfect fit for him, as they’ve had trouble on the right side for several years, and could use a powerplay option outside of Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei (both left-handed). In 42 games for UMD this season, Pionk scored 34 points and helped the Bulldogs reach the championship game against the University of Denver.
While the Rangers continue to play for the Stanley Cup, the team has already added Alexei Bereglazov from the KHL and signed Steven Kampfer to a contract extension, while adding Vinni Lettieri and now Pionk from the NCAA ranks. It’s been a busy spring for Jeff Gorton and Chris Drury, as they look to prepare their team for the future while battling for the present. Pionk and Bereglazov are of special interest, as their arrival in New York seems to give the team too many options on the blueline. Should they decide to move on from one or two of their veteran defenders, they would have a tough time moving the big contracts. Both Marc Staal and Dan Girardi have no-movement clauses and are still signed long-term, though interestingly Girardi’s clause drops to a 15-team no-trade list on July 1st.
In all, Pionk has entered a situation where he will not be relied upon as the savior or a building-block, but a complementary piece on a team that already has its sights set on the playoffs every year. Should he show the ability to transition well to the NHL game, he’ll be rewarded handsomely in the future with one of the richest teams in the league. The Rangers have been doing a great job in recruiting young players from the college and European ranks, making up for their lack of draft picks in recent years.
Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet was first to report that Pionk had come to terms with the Rangers.