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Neal Pionk, Alexei Bereglazov, Sean Day eye future role with Rangers

New York defenseman prospects have confidence despite stiff competition

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- At the urging of his coach, defenseman Neal Pionk used to watch clips of Ryan McDonagh when he was a teenager trying to prove himself with Sioux City in the United States Hockey League.

Now, 20 days shy of his 22nd birthday, Pionk, a Minnesota native and New York Rangers prospect, hopes to earn a chance to play on the same team as McDonagh, also a Minnesota native, and the Rangers captain.

Pionk was one of 13 defensemen who participated in the Rangers prospect development camp from June 26-30. Like 23-year-old Russian prospect Alexei Bereglazov and 19-year-old Sean Day, Pionk is preparing for training camp in September with an eye on making the team in October.

It's a long shot for New York's top defenseman prospects who are embarking on their first pro season now that Kevin Shattenkirk signed a four-year, $26.6 million contract on July 1 to play for the Rangers.


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"Whatever happens after training camp happens, but my goal going into training camp is to make the team," Pionk said. "I think I can fit the Rangers' style. I know coach [Alain] Vigneault likes to play an up-tempo game."

Pionk, a 6-foot right-handed defenseman like Shattenkirk, went undrafted as an 18-year-old playing in Sioux City because, according to Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark, he wasn't ready. He was too slight and slender despite hitting a growth spurt at 17.

"There are kids who just need to go to college," Clark said. 

Pionk blossomed at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, scoring 51 points (11 goals, 40 assists) in 82 games, including 34 (seven goals, 27 assists) in 42 games last season, when he helped UMD get to the Frozen Four. He became one of the most sought-after college free agents, and signed with the Rangers on May 1.

"He has power-play potential," Clark said. "He has a great mind on him. He can find the cross diagonal pass that makes you go, 'Oh my god no … wait, how did he see him?' He's got that."

Bereglazov is different. He's a hulking 6-foot-4, 205-pound defenseman who played for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League. He was coached by former Rangers coach Mike Keenan and former Rangers assistant Mike Pelino.

"We weren't interested in drafting him," Clark said. "He was slower back then when he was 18." 

Clark said it was Pelino who put Bereglazov back on the Rangers' radar, giving a heads up to president Glen Sather. Bereglazov signed with New York on April 21.

"He really improved as a player," Clark said.

Everybody in the scouting world knew Day's potential four years ago, when he became the fourth player in Ontario Hockey League history to be granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada, allowing him to play in the league as a 15-year-old. The other three: John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid.

However, family struggles impacted Day's career with Mississauga of the OHL. His brother, Scott, was arrested in May 2014 and later imprisoned for killing a woman while driving under the influence of alcohol. 

"That was his best friend and he was devastated," Clark said. "That summer he put 40 extra pounds on, showed up at Canada's [World Junior evaluation] camp, and it went downhill."

Last year, Day's draft year, his grandmother passed away and his mother Carol's Celiac Disease caused her to go into the hospital with no guarantee she would make it out alive. A year later, Day, who was selected by the Rangers in the third round (No. 81) of the 2016 NHL Draft, is trying to climb back up. 

Day helped Windsor win the Memorial Cup after a midseason trade from Mississauga. His conditioning has improved. He said he has added 10 pounds of muscle since getting drafted, but he has maintained the same 13-14 percent body fat. He's at 231 pounds.

"I don't think a lot of people go through what I've had to go through, but you can have it way worse than what we do," said Day, who signed his entry-level contract on March 8. "If you don't want to work hard to play pro hockey, then I don't think you belong here. It's done wonders for me to go through the things I've gone through. It's changed my mindset. I want to put in the work to play pro hockey."

Day, like Pionk and Bereglazov, are each long shots to make the opening night roster but will get a chance to showcase his skills in training camp.

"I don't know what their plans are, but I have the size, skill, speed and the mental game for it," Day said. "I just have to step in, be confident and play. If it's the right fit, then it'll work out."

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