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Jets’ Pionk ’embarrassed’ about lost season for himself and team


WINNIPEG — Neal Pionk led with a joke about his bloody and expanding nose, but he quickly got serious and let it be known for all to hear that this underachieving season was no laughing matter.

The Winnipeg Jets defenceman pulled no punches at the podium on Tuesday, providing the harshest critique of the season to date and he used the same word to describe the state of his own game.

Embarrassing.

Pionk was the latest member of the Jets to take ownership for this lost season, one that’s down to just three games, including Wednesday’s tilt with the Philadelphia Flyers.

“When I look in the mirror, I’m embarrassed,” said Pionk. “I don’t think I played as best as I could all year. That’s where it starts for me. I think if everyone goes into the summer and does that self-evaluation and we all come back, it’ll be a lot better.”

Like several players who spoke before him, Pionk wasn’t interested in playing the blame game.

But he made it abundantly clear the status quo was simply not good enough and sounded like someone who planned to do something about it.

At a time when there are many questions surrounding what the Jets roster is going to look like next fall and what might need to be done in order to try and make a move back toward contender status, Pionk showed an incredibly high level of accountability — and that’s such an important quality.

“Disappointing, underachieving, I don’t know if it was one specific area. It was almost every area. It starts by looking in the mirror, too,” said Pionk. “If everyone goes into the summer with that mindset, a little self-evaluation, looking in the mirror, and bringing a better attitude and a better mindset to training camp next year, we’ll start on a better foot.

“When I say different mindset, what I mean is we have to have a chip on our shoulder in a sense. Let’s be honest, it was kind of embarrassing what we did this year. We had a really good roster and totally underachieved. If we come into training camp next year with a chip on our shoulder, to not go through what we did this year, we’ll be better off.”

Pionk’s struggles have been one of the great mysteries to try and solve.

His effort is never in question, but things just didn’t go nearly as smoothly as usual since he came over from the New York Rangers in the deal for Jacob Trouba.

After he was the Jets’ best defenceman during the past two seasons, Pionk took a step backward, especially after Dec. 5 — when he was on the receiving end of a knee to the head from Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza.

Earlier in the game, Pionk was involved in a knee-on-knee collision with Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin and the play in question resulted in a two-game suspension.

Once he returned from the first suspension of his NHL career, there was a noticeable dip in Pionk’s play.

Rather than display the junkyard dog mentality that had been so prevalent previously, Pionk needed ample time before he was ready to start playing with the physical edge that is often there when he’s playing at his best.

“You have to go out there cautious, right? You got suspended, the league noticed it and you can’t do it again,” said Pionk. “That’s kind of the message you have to learn from your mistakes. You still have to play competitive and play hard, but you have to learn from it and not cross that line.”

Complicating matters was an undisclosed injury that Pionk is still working through.

Pionk has brought some of that snarl back into his game in recent weeks and he’s getting much closer to finding his stride.

In Sunday’s game with the Colorado Avalanche, Pionk took a hard check from forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel that left him with a cut along the bridge of his nose thanks to his own visor coming down on impact into the boards.

Pionk expressed his displeasure to Aube-Kubel during a stoppage in play, but the incident seemed to raise the temperature of the game itself, and gave the Jets blue-liner a bit of a boost.

“I didn’t know my nose could get any bigger but no, it feels fine. We were just chatting, chatting about the weather in Winnipeg, that’s all,” said Pionk. “Yeah, it got the adrenalin going a little bit. I think any time you throw a hit or take a hit like that, everybody’s adrenalin spikes a little bit so maybe it was a turning point.

“Guys have your back. And I knew that about this group. It’s good to see and if it pulled out the competitive side of everybody, I’m good with it.”

Having Pionk return to previous form is one of the ways the Jets can improve next season and if his actions match his words, he looks like a good bet to be a bounce-back candidate.

Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry believes that playing with emotion is an essential quality for Pionk to have success, even if finding that balance when it comes to playing on the edge but not going over it can occasionally be a challenge.

“Well I really believe that’s part of the whole process. The maturity in a player, the understanding that you have to play to your strengths,” said Lowry. “We all know that sometimes if you’re tentative as a player, you’re not going to be at your best. (Pionk is) a guy that when he’s playing with an edge in his game, when he’s playing physical, that means his feet are moving, he’s involved emotionally in the game.”

Lowry also appreciated Pionk’s frankness in his assessment of his own play and that of the Jets as a whole, even if he wasn’t ready to add the E-word to his vocabulary when asked once again about a season that includes a record of 36-32-11.

“I told you the other day, we’re not going to run and hide from this,” said Lowry. “We know that we’re going to have to be better. The biggest thing is it has to start within, and it has to start with self-reflection and individuals taking ownership of where we are.

“I say disappointment. And every guy is going to have different words. I use disappointment and you use frustration. There’s going to be different adjectives used to describe what went on this year. True professionals don’t like to lose. You’re looking for solutions, you’re looking for answers.”

Pionk deserves credit for his ability to deliver an answer that pushes the envelope to a degree and if enough members of the Jets feel similarly and react accordingly, they should be able to avoid using the word to describe the 2022-23 campaign.



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