College men's hockey: Former Bulldog, Hermantown native Pionk signs with Rangers
Hermantown native and former Minnesota Duluth defenseman Neal Pionk on Monday signed a two-year entry level contract with the NHL’s New York Rangers.
The announcement Monday caps a two-week process for the 21-year-old Pionk, who decided to forgo his final two seasons of NCAA eligibility and turn pro. The deal with the Rangers — who are down 2-0 to the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference semifinals — begins with the 2017-18 season.
“I liked everything about it. I took a visit out there last week and I really liked their management staff,” Pionk, an undrafted free agent, said of the Rangers. “I met the head coach, Alain Vigneault, and was comfortable with him. I like their style of play and I like the team’s success the past few years. I’m looking forward to it.”
Pionk, who turns 22 in July, posted seven goals and 27 assists in 42 games as an All-NCHC second-teamer for the Bulldogs in 2016-17. His 34 points ranked 10th among NCAA defensemen nationally and second among NCHC defensemen.
Pionk totaled four goals and 13 assists as a freshman after playing two full seasons of junior hockey with the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League. Pionk played two seasons at Hermantown High School as a sophomore and junior before leaving to play in the USHL as a senior.
Pionk was reported to also be interested in the Los Angeles Kings — who recently signed Bulldogs senior wing and All-American Alex Iafallo — as well as the Chicago Blackhawks. Pionk said he took a number of visits to meet with NHL franchises — though wouldn’t specify which ones — prior to signing with the Rangers.
Getting the opportunity to meet face-to-face with NHL general managers and coaches, as well as to check out a team’s city and facilities, was a major reason Pionk announced back in mid-April, before picking an NHL team, that he would not return to the Bulldogs.
“I had never been to New York City, so seeing Times Square was pretty cool, and walking into Madison Square Garden was awesome,” Pionk said of his visit with the Rangers. “I can just tell that the atmosphere is electric in there, and hopefully I can play in there one day.”
Pionk said in April leaving the Bulldogs was “easily” the hardest decision of his life, but that his game had taken “leaps and bounds” from his freshman year.
UMD has lost two underclassman this offseason after beating North Dakota for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff title and losing to Denver in the NCAA championship game at the Frozen Four in Chicago. Freshman goaltender Hunter Miska signed with the Arizona Coyotes in April.