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Pionk excited for a new opportunity in Winnipeg

"You look at Winnipeg as a hockey city and how good their team is... that's exciting for me." -Pionk

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton /

WINNIPEG - During his first full season in the NHL in 2018-19, Neal Pionk experienced a lot.

Over the course of 73 games, he played an average of 21 minutes a night for the New York Rangers, played on the power play, the penalty kill, and against the opposition's best.

On Monday, he experienced being traded for the first time.

"You're thrown off a little bit," said Pionk after he was informed of the trade to the Winnipeg Jets from Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton. "But now that it's settling in, I'm excited for the opportunity in Winnipeg."

Along with Pionk, the Jets received the 20th overall pick in this weekend's NHL Draft in exchange for defenceman Jacob Trouba.

Like Trouba, the 23-year-old Pionk is also a right-handed defenceman. He has over 100 games of NHL experience with seven goals and 43 total points in those games.

But while he was a regular in the line-up, things weren't always easy for Pionk. He credits veteran Marc Staal for helping him through a dip in confidence in the second half of the season. That dip coincided with the Rangers struggling to a 10-15-7 finish in the final 10 weeks of the 2018-19 campaign.

"You get in the habit of blaming it on yourself, at least I did. It can be good, but it can also be bad," said Pionk. "You start losing your confidence like I did and once you lose your confidence in the NHL, it's hard to get it back. I think I rebounded pretty well in March and April, came back a little bit. I'm hoping to carry that momentum into next fall."

Video: OFF SEASON | Neal Pionk Speaks With Media

Shortly after his conversation with Gorton ended, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff got in touch with Pionk - who is a restricted free agent in need of a contract for the 2019-20 season.

The two didn't discuss anything contract related at that moment - Pionk says he'll leave that to his agent and Cheveldayoff to sort out. Pionk also chatted with Jets head coach Paul Maurice.

"He said the biggest emphasis for you and with our team is 'faster.' That will be my main focus for the summer, along with getting bigger and stronger," said Pionk. "My main focus will be going to the workout room five days a week. I just got on the ice a couple weeks ago. So I'll start building up with that and working on my overall game, whether it's in the weight room or whether it's on the ice - specific skills or whatever it is - just trying to be in the best shape possible and put the best foot forward that I can."

While he doesn't know many players on the Jets roster, there are some connections.

Video: OFF SEASON | Kevin Cheveldayoff

Pionk was a teammate of Kyle Connor's for a short time in 2013-14, as the two helped USA to a gold medal at the World Junior A Challenge. 

As a product of Hermantown, Minnesota, Pionk - who has three younger brothers - is also very familiar with Winnipeg's 2017 second round pick, Dylan Samberg. The two have never been on the same team, but Pionk did suit up for the University of Minnesota-Duluth (where Samberg currently plays) from 2015-17.

"He's always been a great player and of course now he's at Duluth. We stay in touch," Pionk said of Samberg. "We work out together and skate together in the summer. He's a heck of a hockey player, whatever he is - 6'4" or 6'5" - he's got a lot of skill and a good skater for that size. Winnipeg should be excited about him."

While the Jets only play the Rangers twice per season, Pionk remembers those match-ups well. He had one assist in the two games, both won by Winnipeg.

"That was the first thing I thought of when I switched my mindset to going to Winnipeg is how good the team is," said Pionk. "I know when I was in New York playing the Jets, it was always a big challenge. Big in the sense that the team is physically big, but not only that, they can get up and down the ice and they like to play offence. I think that fits my game too."

As for the adjustment of going from New York - the biggest city by population in the USA - to Winnipeg, Pionk doesn't think it will be much of a challenge.

"At the time when I was growing up, (Hermantown) was a town of about 8,000. I'd always say going from a town of 8,000 to 8-million in New York was a bit of a culture shock," said Pionk. "Of course it is cold up in Duluth, so I don't think I'll have a problem adjusting to Winnipeg."

But before he gets to Winnipeg, he has a summer of training ahead of him.

"The minute you take a breath or kick back and relax in this league, I think you get passed up by whoever it is, whether it's an older veteran or a younger player," Pionk said. "My mindset is to never be satisfied and try to be the best I can be every single day, whether it's the off season or whether it's the middle of the playoffs. I'm always trying to improve my game in every aspect."

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