With the NHL and NHLPA attempting to finalize its return to play format for the 2020-21 campaign, teams across the league will be able to conduct their off-season business for a little bit longer, which could provide the Winnipeg Jets an opportunity to extend one of their top young blueliners.
After agreeing to a two-year contract extension with impending restricted free agent Mikhail Berdin earlier this week, it’s possible general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff might not be finished extending their players just yet. Considering this season, whenever it begins, is expected to be a sprint to the finish line, it’d be very wise to attempt to get a jump start on the work for next off-season.
As of right now, the Jets are expected to have approximately $51.1 million committed to 11 skaters in 2021-22, including forward Bryan Little, who probably won’t participate in another NHL game. Since the front office will essentially need to fill out half of their roster next summer, they should probably aim to knock off at least a few of those spots before this season concludes.
Particularly on the blue line, Cheveldayoff will have a ton of work ahead of him next summer, as the organization only has three defensemen signed beyond the 2020-21 campaign. Adding another layer to this situation, management will need to negotiate a new contract with defenseman Neal Pionk, as he’s scheduled to become a restricted free agent for the second time in his career.
Acquired from the New York Rangers in exchange for defenseman Jacob Trouba, Pionk is coming off a very encouraging inaugural campaign and didn’t waste any time making a strong impact for his new team. Quickly becoming an integral part of the defensive group, the undrafted free agent served as a quality playmaker and refused to shy away from throwing his body around.
Over 71 games in 2019-20, the 25-year old averaged a career-high 23:23 minutes of ice time, producing six goals, 39 assists, 25 power-play points, 0.08 goals per game, 0.19 goals created per game, 0.63 points per game, 177 shots on net, 165 hits, 78 blocks, and 31 takeaways.
In comparison to the rest of the league, the 6-foot blueliner finished tied with the third-most power-play points, the fourth-most assists, tied for the eighth-most shots on net, the 10th-most hits, tied for the 10th-most points, the 14th-most goals per game, and tied for the 20th-most takeaways among all qualified defensemen, according to NHL.com.
Now entering his second season in blue and white, Pionk will be looking to take another positive step forward as he looks to grow his game even further. With that in mind, it’d make plenty of sense for the front office to attempt to lock him up before the puck drops on the 2020-21 campaign.
Set to make $3 million this season, there’s a very good chance the right-hander will demand a considerable raise once negotiations begin, potentially somewhere in the $5-$6 million range per season. At that figure, the Jets would probably be looking to backload his salary over a three or four-year deal, although they might lean more towards four years so he doesn’t become an unrestricted free agent at the same time as Dylan DeMelo, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, and Connor Hellebuyck.
Though filling out the remainder of the blue line could prove to be extremely difficult down the road, especially since Josh Morrissey is scheduled to earn $6.25 million per season through 2027-28, there’s a solid chance Winnipeg has a future star on its hands in Pionk. Needing to keep the Nebraska native around, it’d be foolish to allow him to reach the open market, meaning they should make him a long-term piece of their defensive corps in the near future.
While it’d be ideal to hammer out an extension before training camp opens, finishing before Jan. 3 might not be a realistic timeline, as it’s usually very rare for contract negotiations to last only a few weeks. That being said, as long as Pionk receives a new deal before he becomes a free agent next summer, both sides can take as much time as they need to come together on an agreement.