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Prospect Season Recap: Neal Pionk

by Matt Calamia @MattCalamia /

Like pitching in baseball, hockey teams can never have too much defense, especially of the right-handed, puck-moving variety.

Unfortunately, those players aren't always readily available in the NHL, and thus teams look towards the draft or - like in the case of the Rangers - to the college ranks, which is where the Blueshirts found Neal Pionk, who signed his entry-level contract in May.

"He was clearly the top defenseman with an offensive part of his game out of the college free agents," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director of Player Personnel. "We've been looking to draft or trade for that right-handed shot … who can really move the puck and help you on the power play.


"That's why he signed," Clark added. "To be that guy to get in there and show us what he's got to be that guy we're talking about."

The numbers certainly back up Clark's expectations. The 21-year-old Pionk posted career-highs with seven goals and 27 assists for 34 points in 42 games last season with the University of Minnesota Duluth, who captured the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Championship and advanced to the National Championship Game.

Pionk tied for fourth among NCAA blueliners in assists and was fifth in points. His 15 power play assists were the fifth-highest among defensemen in the country, while his 19 points with the man advantage was good enough for sixth in the nation by a blueliner.

The Hermantown, Minn.-native described himself as a "puck carrying, two-way defenseman" that can "provide an offensive side to my game that can help [the Rangers]."

Chris Drury, the Rangers' assistant general manager and GM of the Hartford Wolf Pack, said Pionk had been on the organization's radar for some time.

"Neal was a defenseman we targeted for the last two years," he said. "His combination of character, compete level and grit, to go along with the way he plays the game - both offensively and defensively - are the reasons why we wanted to add him."

Because he signed after Hartford's season had ended, Pionk was unable to get any games with the Wolf Pack at the end of the year. He said he had been training back home in Minnesota, adding weight and working with a skating coach in preparation for prospect camp later this month, with main camp to follow in September.

He said his goal is to push for a spot in New York immediately.

"That's definitely the goal," he said. "I think that's everyone's goal going into training camp. Nothing is guaranteed or will be handed to me."

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