Winnipeg Jets avoid arbitration with defenseman Neal Pionk

The Winnipeg Jets have avoided one of two arbitration hearings scheduled for this month by agreeing to terms with pending restricted free agent Neal Pionk on a four-year deal worth US$23.5-million.

The Average Annual Value of US$5.875-million makes Pionk the third-highest paid defenseman on the team, behind Josh Morrissey (US$6.25-million) and Nate Schmidt (US$5.95-million).

According to CapFriendly, the agreement with Pionk – who was scheduled for an arbitration hearing on Friday – leaves the Jets with 22 roster players under contract and in the position of having to tap into US$2.15-million of the nearly US$5.3-million of LTIR available from the contract of Bryan Little. The veteran center has not played since since November 5 of 2019 after being struck on the side of the head by an errant Nikolaj Ehlers slapshot in a game against the New Jersey Devils.

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Pionk has turned in a pair of outstanding seasons for the Jets since being acquired in the Jacob Trouba trade with the New York Rangers in late June of 2019. The 26-year-old smooth-skating defenseman — who was born in Omaha, Neb. but raised in Hermantown, Minn. – has scored nine goals and added 68 assists for 77 points in 125 games for Winnipeg.

The University of Minnesota-Duluth product has also contributed 6 assists in 12 career playoff games as a Jet.

With Pionk’s contract situation resolved, the focus for Winnipeg GM, Kevin Cheveldayoff is to find common ground with restricted free agent-forward Andrew Copp ahead of his Aug. 26 arbitration hearing.

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Copp and the Jets have gone behind closed doors once before, when an arbitrator awarded the player a two-year deal for US$2.28-million.

The 27-year-old Ann Arbor, Mich. native is one year removed from unrestricted free agency, so what happens over the next two weeks could very well determine whether Andrew Copp returns for a seventh full season in Winnipeg.

Or perhaps Cheveldayoff may consider a sign-and-trade deal to recover some of the draft pick assets that were used to acquire defensemen Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt earlier this summer.

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