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View From the Booth - August 12, 2021

Play-by-Play voice Paul Edmonds gives his take on Neal Pionk's new contract

by Paul Edmonds @UtilityVoice / WinnipegJets.com

At this point the signing of Neal Pionk to a multi-year contract isn't the last piece to the off-season puzzle for the Winnipeg Jets, but the overall image is starting to take shape.

In what could be best described as a fair market deal for both parties, the 26-year-old's new contract most certainly frames the team's blueline picture for the 2021-22 season.

It is also important to note that in getting an agreement consummated prior to Pionk's arbitration hearing on August 13, the two sides avoided the potential for animosity and divisiveness that are usually by-products of the onerous process.

In locking up Pionk plus adding Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt recently, the Jets now have 10 defencemen under contract with NHL experience, including six with over 200 games played in the league.

As such, Winnipeg will assuredly be better on the back end than either of the two previous seasons and they'll likely be more adept at puck movement, defending and generally controlling the game with this current group of personnel. 

And that's an exciting and confident way to enter a new season, especially for Jets Nation.

Moreover, what Pionk's signing also suggests is a concrete belief the player has in his team's ability to win. Otherwise, he could have gone to arbitration, signed for one year and then hit unrestricted free agency after this coming season.

Instead, he bypassed that option and committed to an economically palatable four-year contract at an average annual salary of $5.875 million per year (all figures U.S.).

In turn, he provides the Jets with another important team pillar in what is subtly acknowledged as a realistic three-year window to win.

As the team's blueline points leader the last two seasons (77 points in 125 games), Pionk will be an integral part of any success the team enjoys between now and the conclusion of his current deal in 2024-25. 

At only six-feet and 190 pounds, he is a gritty defender, excellent playmaker and versatile in any on-ice, in-game situation including special teams.

So now that Pionk is signed and the blueline alterations completed, what next garners the attention of Jets' general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his hockey operations department this summer?

As it currently sits there are only two major agenda items remaining, both of which are likely being dealt with currently and simultaneously.

The first is the Andrew Copp situation and his pending arbitration hearing on August 26 - a date both the team and player would presumably like to avoid since they already sat on opposite sides of the table in an identical scenario two years ago. 

And since that hearing, Copp has not been shy about enlightening anyone that asks about the unpleasant exercise of the boardroom business of hockey that the process can create.

As the last remaining restricted free agent on Winnipeg's roster, the 27-year-old is assuredly going to get a raise. But the questions now are by how much and for how long?

The other detail on the "to-do" list is to sign at least one other veteran to fill the vacancies on the fourth line. Inking Riley Nash to a contact in the last two weeks was a solid move and partially helps in the replacement of Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis, as the right-handed shooting Nash will either factor on the fourth line as its centreman or could be a replacement for Mason Appleton on Adam Lowry's line.

However, what complicates matters in both cases is the salary cap, as the Jets are almost up against the $81.5 million ceiling. Dealing with Copp and signing another player (or two) will require management to perform each task while tight roping the NHL's economics with aplomb.

Even when you factor in Bryan Little's contract and the long-term injured reserve (LTIR) relief the team will receive from it, there's not a lot of money remaining in the budget. 

In fact, the number comes in at around $3 million of available space and navigating through that will require some creativity or further roster movement.

Either way, a resolution to both should be firmed-up before the end of the month, which would put the final puzzle pieces in place in advance of next month's training camp start date.

LANDING GEAR: Interesting to note former Winnipeg Jets centre Olli Jokinen is back in professional hockey, only this time as the head coach of Jukurit of Liiga in his home country of Finland. 

Jokinen, 42, played for the Jets for two seasons, including an 18-goal campaign in the final year of a two-year deal with the club in 2013-14. 

And while this is his first opportunity behind the bench as a professional, this is not his first foray as a hockey coach. 

Previously, he coached the South Florida Hockey Academy U16s for the last four seasons. It's a program that Jokinen is also a proprietor in with some other former NHLers….The Pittsburgh Penguins announced this week that Mike Lange, the long-time voice of the team, is stepping away from the broadcast booth for good. After missing a significant portion of this past season due to caution over the pandemic, the 73-year-old will remain slightly involved as part of the Penguins Radio Network but is unlikely to travel or continue to be the lead voice on their broadcasts.

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