It’s been about a month now since Vegas signed first ever player Reid Duke. Not much more was expected but I was hoping Vegas would be in the mix for some college free agents. Well, maybe they still are. Thursday the semi-finals of the Frozen Four take place and one name in particular will be closely watched by Vegas scouts. Defenseman Neal Pionk of the University Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs is quite highly sought after.
Lots of interest in UMD college free agent defenseman Neal Pionk. A good 20 teams showing interest in the sophomore. Vegas in the mix.
— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) February 21, 2017
Pionk is a new hybrid style defenseman. At 5’10, 170lbs the Minnesota native was passed over a few times because of his small stature. His talent, however, is tough to overlook. Scouts rave about his experience, skating ability, offensive zone presence and physicality. Pionk scored 33 points in 40 games and is a legitimate two-way defenseman. Of course Pionk can turn the puck over but has smart recovery instincts. He’s developed into a major threat on special teams as well. The former Sioux City Musketeer might be small but his speed and skill make up for it. Plus, the UMD Bulldog shoots right-handed. Yep, a right-handed defenseman, one of Don Cherry’s most coveted prospect.
ESPN’s Craig Custance spoke with GM George McPhee earlier this month about the Golden Knights interest in Pionk. McPhee implied Vegas will be in the market for NHL caliber prospects not AHL depth players. We can assume the 21 year-old defenseman is projected for the T-Mobile Arena or McPhee wouldn’t be interested. Nor would 20 other clubs.
Pionk’s two-way ability will have to be a factor in Thursday’s semi. In last week’s NCAA Regional game, Pionk factored in the game-winning overtime goal vs. Boston University. The right-handed defenseman came up clutch a week earlier picking up a PP assist in the NCHC championship vs. North Dakota. Pionk’s leadership leads on and off the ice. To prove that, you better believe he’ll face the media after a win or loss. Most of his postgame interviews are online, check out Pionk on YouTube.
Depending on the outcome of Thursday’s game, Vegas could sign Pionk on Friday. If Minnesota-Duluth wins, the Golden Knights will have to wait a few days. By next week, Vegas could have two players on their roster. A little birdie from the team told us in a candid conversation that “college free agents would be stupid” to sign anywhere else but Vegas, implying the playing time and opportunity here is unlike anywhere in the Original 30. Pionk is the only player Vegas is rumored to be interested in. When there’s smoke there’s fire.