Neal Pionk and the case of good eyes and bad numbers

Neal Pionk is an interesting defenseman in the current Rangers rebuild. Signed as an undrafted free agent, Pionk quickly impressed in camp and followed that up with an impressive first stint at the end of last season. In that 28 game stint, Pionk put up a line of 1-13-14. So far this season, Pionk has six assists in seven games.

In addition to the points, Pionk has shown a great ability to move the puck up the ice and transition the rush to offense. He makes a good first pass, has good speed, and solid vision. He’s no Erik Karlsson, but he gets the job done. When he’s on his game, he’s able to do things like this at the blue line:

The concern with Pionk is that the underlying possession numbers don’t necessarily match the production. Now don’t get me wrong, if Pionk continues producing points you are generally able to overlook poor possession numbers (see: Klein, Kevin). Here is how Pionk looks for shot rates thus far through the season. It isn’t overly pretty.

Pionk is firmly in the ‘bad’ territory here, and is among the bottom two defensemen in allowing shot attempts. Now, this is very early on and the Rangers are a team in transition learning a new system. However the numbers do reflect what we think we know: Pionk does struggle in the defensive zone.

This argument is supported by specific plays we can focus on with Pionk, such as this one.

Edit: It’s been pointed out that this is McQuaid, not Pionk. My bad, was tough to tell on the gif.

Pionk bites a bit to the top of the circle, allowing Mike Hoffman behind him for the give and go and eventual goal. This is a little play that does lead to a goal, so it’s fresh in our minds. This, however, gives credence to the argument that while Pionk is solid offensively, he will struggle to contain shots defensively. This is just one play, but there are others, and it shows why the possession numbers are a little low. Poor possession numbers usually mean one of two things: 1) The production won’t last for long, or 2) The points are coming from riding the coattails of better players. Of course, it could be both. Or neither.

The fact here is we don’t have enough games to really judge what Pionk is and what he will be. Pionk’s first 28 games were under Alain Vigneault, and no Ranger had good possession numbers under him. Now with seven games under David Quinn, Pionk and the Rangers are still transitioning to a new system. That takes time and there is a learning curve. Much like when the Rangers transitioned to AV’s system in 2013, the team and players begin to show what they will be around November/December.

When that time comes, I’m more likely to dismiss Pionk’s early numbers and see what his numbers are under Quinn after the team fully adjusts. It is a little unfair and honestly just downright irresponsible to judge Pionk and write him off after 34 games of bad possession numbers. This is a season to learn and to grow. There’s nothing wrong with seeing what the kid’s got.

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  • Gotta love Pionk’s offense. Gotta work on his D. But so far in his career he’s got 20 points in 35 games, that’s pretty impressive. Of course the Rangers are under .500 for Pionk’s short stint here, but he’s showing a lot of offensive ability.

    Why is Marc Staal still seeing regular shifts? Get him out, get DeAngelo in, and let’s score a lot of goals on a nightly basis.

  • Dave, While I will not argue Pionk needs to work on his Defensive Game (like 99% of smaller offensive minded DMen do)/, but the example on the Hoffman goal was not on Pionk…This Season.
    Last Year under AV’s Man2Man D Coverage, Pionk would have been on Hoffman and chased him around the net.
    This Season under Quinn with more a a zone scheme we are seeing less chasing of the puck handler and more standing your position, which is why we are seing less rebound chances, more “Royal Road” Clears, and overall far less High Danger Chances when we have established our DZone structure (Meaning, not OZone breakdown leading to odd man rushes against).

    #1 This was a perfectly timed give and go between two extremely good NHL players.
    #2 Spooner was late getting over to cover Huberdeau after Hoffman dropped off the pass. Pionk was caught in between covering for Spooner (because he can’t let Huberdeau walk into the front of the net for a clear shot). and keeping himself in a Defend the pass position.
    #3 Staal either had AV on his mind waiving his stick near the post of his offside, didn’t realize Hoffman was as fast as he is, or (mostlikely) did not realize how slow he has become and he cannot take himself out of his small defensive circle that allows him to play defensively

    Much of this has to do with #1…If this was Zucc dropping it off to Hayes with ZUcc scoring on the wraparound we would be saying how beautiful of a give and go it was (because it was).

    • This — also, it is far from clear that any of the D are getting much back-checking help consistently or at least smart back-checking. That seems to be an area of improvement or at least focus under Quinn, but all those 2 on 1s early in the season speak to how difficult managing a new system are. The forwards matter to the data. I guess aside from pointing out that this Hoffman goal doesn’t actually show what it seems to show about Pionk, it is interesting to me — again — that the narrative on Pionk and that the “his metrics are awful, so he is awful” crowd are so certain already.

    • Pionk is the least of issues on D……..Brady, Staal, Shatty have been less than stellar. Brady really worries me and I would not shy away from trading him if we can fleece a GM……I have said this numerous times… Quinn will mold his team and I would not be surprised if players that we though would be part of the future here are sent packing elsewhere…..

  • in this discussion I think its important to note that of his 20 NHL points 10 are on the PP. 5 this year. It kind of fits in to the theme so far of the team this year being so anemic at even strength.

  • First, appreciate all the great work each day. Unfortunately I have to point out that the defensemen in that gif getting burned is our first line pairing of #54 McQuaid & #76 Skjei. I have no doubt there is a similar video for Pionk though

  • “The concern with Pionk is that the underlying possession numbers don’t necessarily match the production. Now don’t get me wrong, if Pionk continues producing points you are generally able to overlook poor possession numbers (see: Klein, Kevin). ”

    No, you can’t. Overlooking bad metrics because of something else sunk a lot of money into players that we’re either still chained with, or still paying. Should Neal Pionk be playinig to see if he can improve? 100% YES. But…. It isn’t just that his shot metrics are bad, his total 5×5 and/or Even Strength metrics are bad.

    Last year: Even Strength/5×5 Hockey- 23/19 GA, while the goalies were sporting a .931/.940 Sv%. So the goalies were performing at or above average, and he yielded a lot of GA.
    This year- 6 GA, with the goalies sporting.930 Sv% He’s already giving up more counted Shots Against.

    And before it comes up, it isn’t just Marc Staal. I am not a Marc Staal supporter, but somehow Staal’s numbers go from stratight post-Taco Bell diarrea with Pionk, to formed post-IHOP poop away from him.

    Again, should Neal Pionk be given the opportunity to work through this and see if it improves? YES. There needs to be major improvement in his game by the end of the year. If not, he needs to go back to Hartford and be a career AHLer, which is perfectly OK.

    • I don’t question your basic premise here. It seems Pionk is not yet a good defenseman. However, I want to point out that hockey is maybe 75-80% PDO and 20-25% possession. The high save percentages behind a defenseman are NOT unrelated to the play of the defenseman. Good defensemen give goalies shots they can handle while bad defensemen don’t. We really don’t have enough data to have any real idea how good a PDO player Pionk is. But the fact that two coaches have liked him suggests he might develop into a good one.

  • Always befuddling to me how players that are “liked”, we can almost disregard the numbers, but others who are the villain, need to be chastised for every decimal point into negative grounds. Are possession numbers more important for a forward or a defenseman? I would suggest defenders, as low possession numbers usually turn into opportunities for the opposition. Pionk is a good young defenseman who needs work in his own end, but on a team starved for offense, any boost in offensive numbers is a welcome addition.

    • Pionk can breakup the rush, win his 1 on 1 battles and make smart outlet passes. That style of play is better than anyone else on the NYR blueline. His game would stay trending up if he had a reliable partner to feed off from.

  • This is all that matters

    Q what do you like about Pionk’s game

    A “everything! The way he DEFENDS, the way he POSITIONS himself, his vision. His ability to make a good outlet pass. His PK ability. The way he runs the PP. He has been really good for us”

    David Quinn on Neil Pionk

      • Too Old lol. Quinn is only taking out the guys that can’t go out at night because they are too young for the bars.

    • Folks don’t like to read the quotes from the management pov because it ruined their narratives. You should have seen this place when he got scratched for a game or two. Some of the fans jumped to the conclusion that he wasn’t good enough to play under Quinn’s system.

      Pionk has already surpassed Skjei in the coaches playbook.

      • “Pionk has already surpassed Skjei in the coaches playbook.”

        You should have zero problems providing proof of this, right?

        Emails between Quinn and Gorton?
        Literal words out their mouth?


        No? Didn’t think so.

  • This is crazy that Toni D is not playing we know what we have or don’t have with some of the older guys we need to throw Toni in for 20 or 30 games and see where he is.

    • Tony D will get his chance……..Can’t see Staal playing on a nightly basis unless we are in full tank mode….then u let Staalzie play..Richter1994 told me that if we don’t get into top 3 pick position next year….then this season was a failure from a tanking perspective and I agree…

  • Ton of ink about #44.

    I’m loving it! This is exactly what I was hoping for this season. We are all over the youth. I am hoping all of the youngsters grow into the team we all are waiting for…

    So pumped to be a Rangers Fan reading this stuff.

    This team is marinating baby!
    #72- Boyz got wicked skills!

  • Random:
    Has anyone else noticed that the video pop up plays highlights that are all the opposing team scoring? I feel like I spent a week watching that Johnny Gaudreau goal and now there’s a goal reel for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms blowing up the Pack. What gives?

  • Playing defense is hard and usually takes a long times to learn how to do well. That is why Marc Staal and Adam McQuaid are playing and Tony DeAngelo and Libor Hajek are not. The numbers tell us that Neal Pionk is just not very good TODAY. What the very biased BSB eye test tells us is that there are a lot of things about his game to like and so what we have is a below average player who is young and has a lot to build upon. Assuming that he has a strong potential for improvement and that playing at the NHL level gives him the best opportunity to improve, he belongs in the lineup and that is all a rebuilding team needs to care about.

    I think that is what is happening. He is learning and he is not getting embarrassed, so building confidence. Even Marc Staal’s play, helping out Pionk when he can even at the risk of being the goat on a goal is a plus as it helps with Pionk’s morale.

    • LOL @ below average. He is leading the team in minutes per game the last 3 games. He stands out clearly in good ways. The biased eye test is a laughable phrase. What is more appropriate is the nearly useless advanced stats that don’t begin to tell any story. They are as useful to hockey as common core math in schools

      • It would be hard to lead Tampa Bay or Nashville in ice time and be below average, easier with the Rangers, especially with your competition on the right side being McQuaid and the defensively weak Shattenkirk. I did not say he was below average for a Ranger D.

        Did you also find “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” to be laughable? Seriously, I am not saying that stats are better than the eye test. What I am saying is that we see what we want to see, especially if our jobs don’t depend on being right, and almost everyone at BSB comes at the process with the same biases – offense good, youth good.

  • In lineup decisions, there is one crucial point. Hockey games are mostly decided by PDO and not be possession. Measuring PDO is incredibly hard because of sample size error. But that does not mean that hockey professionals can’t tell the difference between a good PDO player and a bad one. Oh, none are always right and the worst are wrong a lot, but PDO differentiation is a skill. And the guys who have it tend to be the guys in winning organizations, not the guys who agree with us.

    Another overlooked point: Possession numbers are not as important as they used to be. Twenty years ago, possession skills and PDO skills tended to be possessed by the same players, the best hockey players. So you could identify good players by possession numbers, which are far more accurate. However, the elevation of possession stats encourages teams to sign and use players who are strong possession-weak PDO players and so possession numbers now correlate less with good hockey players than they used to.

    • What?

      I’m asking if you seriously understand what PDO is. It appears very much that you and Glen “Gretzky woulda had poor advanced analytics on the VO2 bike” Sather have the same level of understanding.

  • I think half of Pionk’s issues on D relate to his overall strength, that’s correctable over time … the other half may not be correctable. Regardless, he needs to play — as does ADA. They’re both better than some of the fossils we’re playing right now on D.

  • There is a huge difference between Kevin Klein and Neal Pionk putting points up. Klein was never expected too or asked to fill that role. Pionk is being groomed to be a Kevin Shattenkirk type that produces points. He is expected to jump into the play and run the first PP unit.

    Man when did actual production override underlying numbers. He has been more then a net positive and is producing on the offensive end of the ice. Lets enjoy it and see where it goes. It is ok if Pionk isn’t a stud in his own end, if he keeps generating scoring chances and runs the PP like he has been.

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