The back end of the Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team took another hit Monday when sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk of Hermantown confirmed to the News Tribune he will forgo his final two seasons of NCAA eligibility to turn pro.
Pionk said leaving the Bulldogs was “easily” the hardest decision of his life.
“Leaving the hometown team, the dream team, such a great program, was very difficult for me,” he said. “It was a long process and I’m glad I sat on it. I just sat back and took everything in. At the end of the day, I decided the opportunity was too good to turn down. I’ve decided to go pro.”
Pionk said he’ll begin talking with NHL teams this week and expects that process to run into next week as well. He said “a fair amount” of teams are interested in his services.
Pionk, who turns 22 in July, posted seven goals and 27 assists in 42 games for the Bulldogs this year. His 34 points ranked 10th among NCAA defensemen nationally and second among NCHC defensemen.
Pionk totaled four goals and 13 assists a year ago as a freshman at UMD 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.
“The coaches have been a great help, teammates have been a great help,” Pionk said of the Bulldogs. “I definitely looked up to a lot of the older guys to help my offensive game and defensive game.
“I feel like I made a lot of leaps and bounds from last year. I feel like I had a good year. The interest was there and the opportunity is there. Now it’s about picking the right opportunity.”
Pionk said he still wants to finish his college degree, something he promised his mother, Karen.
“It’s a mindset more than anything,” Pionk said. “I know two years seems like a lot but if you put your mind to it, you can do it.”
Pionk is the second UMD underclassman to leave school early after the team beat North Dakota for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff title and lost to Denver in the NCAA championship game in Chicago. Freshman goaltender Hunter Miska signed with the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday.
In addition to losing Pionk, UMD is graduating four senior defensemen. That leaves freshman Nick Wolff as the only returning defenseman to have played in 30-plus games in 2016-17.
Freshman Jarod Hilderman played 11 games - most coming during the postseason with senior Carson Soucy injured - while junior Nick McCormack and freshman Will Campion played in a combined five games.
“Some years you have some guys that come back that maybe didn’t play as much. Some guys play a lot their freshmen year,” Sandelin said during his end-of-the-season news conference a week ago. “I thought Jarod stepped in and did a great job. He’s got a lot of talent. He can shoot the puck. He’s got vision. He’s a big, thick kid. Certainty he can contribute offensively. That experience at the end of the year should be a great motivator for him to come in and want to be a part of it full time.
“Even though he is going to be a sophomore, he could be a key guy for us.”
Sandelin has three true freshmen defensemen in Mikey Anderson (brother of Joey Anderson), Matt Anderson (no relation) and Scott Perunovich of Hibbing all signed to join the team next season, but now the coach will be looking to sign yet another.
The Bulldogs could sign either Hermantown senior defenseman Dylan Samberg - currently playing for Waterloo in the USHL - or Minnesota Magicians defenseman Hunter Lellig. Both 18-year-olds are verbally committed to play for the Bulldogs in the future.
Samberg is ranked 67th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting going into the 2017 NHL Draft. Mikey Anderson is 51st, Matt Anderson is 111th and Lellig is 188th.