With the first two weeks of the season in the books, it’s fair to point out the inconsistency of Neal Pionk but there may be an easier explanation to the 23 year old’s growing pains. Inexperience, new coach, new system. All of these have factored into the two games where Pionk was a healthy scratch. However, for a player that has never had the tag of “shut down defenseman,” the amount of defensive zone starts for the blue liner is alarming. Part of this trend is directly correlated to the fact that through 15 games, Pionk has been paired with veteran defenseman Marc Staal.
Throughout the 13 year career of Marc Staal, the defenseman has made a career of shutting down the oppositions top talent, specifically in the prime of his career during the Rangers cup runs. Unfortunately for Staal, injuries and age have slowed his game down dramatically, to the extent that the former hometown favorite has seen himself quickly become the scapegoat of the defense, specifically in Alain Vigneault system of stretch passes. Regardless of his decline, Staal has minutes left in his game and has shown signs of his former self. In the past four seasons, the defenseman has not seen his defensive zone start percentage (dZS%) dip below 57%. That statistic should explain the reason for Staal’s corsi for percentage (CF%) hovering below 50% in the same span of time. Regardless of your side on the fancy stats debate, there is no denying that the other team is in possession of the puck more often than not when Staal is starting his shift in the defensive end. For the eye test folks, Marc Staal’s inability to consistently make the first pass to get out of the zone has hurt his possession stats (duh).
By now I’m sure you can assume the direction I’m going with this. Neal Pionk has not been amazing, besides his coast to coast Bobby Orr rendition the other night. However, a lot of Pionk’s struggles have stemmed from starting his shifts in the defensive end 56.9% of the time. Without being in the office of David Quinn, it’s tough to say whether the pairing with Marc Staal is a vote of confidence for the young blue liner, or if it is more of a balancing act between the pairings. The only other Rangers defenseman with a higher dZS% than Pionk and Staal is offseason acquisition Adam McQuaid. No, I am not suggesting a defensive pairing of Fred Flinstone and Barney Rubble in McQuaid and Staal. However, it’s tough to put judgement on Neal Pionk as a 23 year old defenseman who has yet to play a full season in the NHL while starting more than half of his shifts playing defense.
During the tenure of Alain Vigneault, I was rather critical of the amount of line shuffling and the decisions based off of that. It’s important to point out the fact that Alain Vigneault was handed the keys to a contender, and the fanbase expected nothing less than a Stanley Cup. With new Coach David Quinn, the circumstances are vastly different. The Rangers are in the midst of a rebuild, whether you like it or not. For that reason alone the start of this season, if not the full season, should be treated as an extended training camp. There is a lot of young talent in the Rangers locker room these days, a sight that hasn’t been seen by Blueshirt fans in recent memory. Sheltering young defenseman or forwards to certain situations and roles is a dangerous game to play when it comes to development. You will see Neal Pionk continue to improve this season, but it would be nice to see the young defenseman get more offensive starts at even strength along with his increased power play time in order to develop his game further.