This week we’re checking in on some of the fastest rising prospect defensemen on Dobber’s list. Two out of the three of these players are already logging significant minutes in an NHL role, but there might still be time for you to consider squeaking them into your roster, depending on your league settings. A reminder, that when in doubt, check out DobberHockey’s Frozen Tools player profiles for buy/sell advice under the Advanced Statistics section.
Neal Pionk, New York Rangers Up from 54 to 26 (+28) | 76% Fantrax Ownership
Just over 18 months ago, Neal Pionk was wrapping up his breakout sophomore season with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs and considering the option of leaving school early to pursue a career in the National Hockey league. Fast-forward those 18 months and the 5-11 defenseman is rocketing up the fantasy rankings, not to mention the real-world Rangers depth chart. Even then the signing was considered a major success by the Rangers, as the then 21-year-old was being targeted by several other teams. His right-shot remains a coveted trait amongst premium NHL defenseman making his real-world value that much higher.
In the year and a half since his signing with the Blueshirts, Pionk has accrued in excess of 65 NHL games worth of experience, plus the initial 48 games that he served with the Wolfpack during his rookie campaign. It became immediately apparent, upon his first several NHL contests that Pionk had what it took to become an impact player for the Rangers. Now playing alongside steadfast veteran, Marc Staal, Pionk has been relatively free to explore his offensive potential while taking advantage of as much ice time as the team can bestow upon him. He currently leads the Rangers’ blueline at an average of just over 23 minutes including 2:14 on the man advantage. Under rookie head coach David Quinn, the team has primarily run a 4-forward, 1-defenseman powerplay which tends to limit overall time on ice for the blueline group. Under that system, Pionk comes in with the second most powerplay time on the team just behind Kevin Shattenkirk – a change in that strategy would provide some opportunity for growth in his powerplay deployment. Despite a common trend in minute-munching defensemen, Pionk has managed to maintain his offensive production at a blueline leading rate of 1.78 points/60 – a comparable rate to star names like Torey Krug (1.81p/60), Kris Letang (1.80p/60) and PK Subban (1.76p/60).
The teams’ player usage chart currently depicts the second-year pro as a “Struggling top-four two-way defenseman” in which the struggling label is based primarily on his inability thus far to suppress shot attempts relative to his teammates (-9.5CF%Rel)… but hey, who needs shot suppression when you can do this
Poor Noah Juulsen… this is how it’s done…
Pionk won’t be considered a prospect for much longer, and despite their recent successes, the Rangers remain a team in transition. Any changes that the organization undergoes between now and the February 25th trade deadline could have an impact on his future – some positive, some negative. The most impactful sort of move would be if a scenario materializes where Marc Staal ends up in another uniform. While Pionk hasn’t exactly been sheltered by the veteran, he’s certainly been supported by him. Staal has allowed him to let his creative and offensive juices to flow – keep that in mind down the road, but for now he’s a must-consider for almost any fantasy roster.
Ian Mitchell, Chicago Blackhawks | Up from 53 to 42 (+11) | 6% Fantrax Ownership
The cringe-worthy nights we see on Chicago’s blueline have become a fairly familiar scene in The Windy City. The Toews-Kane era has widely been considered one of the NHLs modern day dynasties, which is what makes the team’s shortcomings that much tougher to swallow. Aside from the obvious salary cap constraints that have been plaguing the organization since their Stanley Cup championship in 2010, you might think that the organization would be soured on the prospect front… well, you’d be sort of right. Prior to the selection of Adam Boqvist at 8th overall last summer, the Blackhawks had picked inside the top-25 only once since 2013. In fact, on average, from 2013 to 2017 their first pick didn’t come until 34th overall. For them to fit into DobberProspects organizational Prospect rankings at 16, you’d have to assume they’ve done pretty well with those picks… and there you’d be quite right.
Last month, @JokkeNevalainen talked about how Henri Jokiharju’s is making ‘Hawks fans optimistic about the future. This month, we’re going to talk about the next potential prospect to make an impact on that blueline. Ian Mitchell, who was drafted out of the Alberta Junior Hockey League has now transitioned to the Division I NCAA level where he’s currently leading the Denver Pioneer’s defense in scoring. While Jokiharju is well on his way to representing a worthy “changing of the guard” in Chicago, Mitchell still has much to prove. His ceiling could put him in with Jokiharju for the ‘Hawks future big-2 down the line, although both are right-shots.
Brandon Montour (2014-55th), Travis Dermott (2015-34th) and Vince Dunn (2015-56th) might be the most recent examples of proven NHL caliber defensemen to come out of the second round with a small list of budding prospects close behind. Of the three, Montour has the most comparable path to the NHL, albeit, not identical. The Ducks’ righty only played a partial season of NCAA hockey prior to signing in the NHL – a 21-game stretch in which he tallied nearly a point per game. Mitchell’s rookie season, on the other hand came up a bit short of that mark, but ten games into his sophomore season he’s on pace to do just that. Using Montour as a rough comparable in terms of ceiling, it’s be reasonable to expect Mitchell to be playing full-time NHL minutes by the fall of 2021, with some cups of coffee between then and now… although ‘Hawks fans might want to see this in Chicago a little sooner:
Grzelcyk is another excellent example of why defensemen taken outside of the first round can’t be written-off too early. After being drafted by the Bruins 85th overall in the summer of 2012, the 5-9 left hander proceeded to play out his entire college career at Boston University, serving as captain for his final two years. While it might seem uncommon in the modern NHL pop culture world, it is possible for a player to do just that, and then sign with the team that drafted him – which is exactly what Grzelcyk did. After wrapping up a disappointing senior year with a regional semi-final exit in 2016, the Massachusetts native signed a two-year ELC with the B’s on April 1. Unfortunately since the Bruins were in the midst of an intense playoff push, we wouldn’t see Grzelcyk in black and yellow until the following season.
With two years of aggregate AHL-NHL completion now under his belt, Grzelcyk is now playing most of his career high 20:28 minutes per game alongside veteran Kevan Miller. He’s currently sitting third on the team’s blueline for points per game while being deployed in a somewhat sheltered, offensive role. Long-term, this seems like a reasonably appropriate expectation for the former BU Terrier, as it’s unlikely that he’ll overthrow Krug or McAvoy for more powerplay time. While he remains a highly underrated player, Grzelcyk’s ceiling appears to be around the 40-45-point range. It’s also worthwhile to note that this is the second consecutive month he’s made a significant jump in Dobber’s rankings, for a total of +18 since September. For an example of why we like him so much, check out this compilation of his top-end edgework and mobility:
A few reasons why Matt Grzelcyk is one of the most underrated young Dmen in the NHL. I make alot of clips of little examples to use with players I work with & overtime realized how often I was clipping him. His hand/feet coordination is next level pic.twitter.com/VJw16iODUy— Peter Russo (@peter_russo9) April 3, 2018
Last but not least, if you haven’t been paying attention to this series in the past, this may be your last chance to pick up Henri Jokiharju, who is tied for the Blackhawks lead in points among defensemen.
Feel free to get involved in the comments or find me on Twitter @olaf1393 for any questions about the topics covered the last couple of weeks!
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