Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Hunter Miska, Neal Pionk Leave UMD Early

Disappointing, exciting, but not terribly surprised.

I think those terms all apply in their own way, amid news in the last 48 hours that two cornerstone players for UMD are leaving the program early for pro hockey.

It's disappointing in a sense when players leave early, from multiple selfish standpoints. Obviously, it stands to hurt the team going forward, and frankly I'm going to miss being around all the players who depart the program.

Of course, it's also exciting. These guys have a chance to make it in the pros, and that's always fun to see happen. 

And in the case of freshman goalie Hunter Miska and sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk, both of whom have announced their intention to turn pro, it isn't surprising UMD lost both. I wrote about it last week, strongly intimating they might go.

Miska signed Saturday with the Arizona Coyotes, where he joins an organization struggling in terms of goalies at all levels. With just four under contract beyond this season, Miska (he turns 22 in July) will have a chance to make an immediate impact.

An older freshman when he arrived, I was never convinced he'd be a four-year guy. But as the season wore on, and Miska practically carried this team at times, it was clear he had a chance to go pro. When Michigan Tech freshman goalie Angus Redmond signed with the Anaheim Ducks last month, it only increased my fears Miska would be the program's first one-and-done player since Justin Faulk in 2010-11.

(Keep in mind, older freshmen especially are risking a lot by staying in school when there are viable offers to go pro. Their window to make it in the pros is much shorter than younger guys in the same situation.)

Sophomores Nick Deery and Hunter Shepard combined to play five games in 2016-17, with Deery starting twice and Shepard once. Their numbers were pretty solid (Deery was  .934 and Shepard a .922), and head coach Scott Sandelin -- who was clearly prepared for these players to leave -- spoke last week about his confidence in both. UMD will bring in another goalie to compete for a job. There are some accomplished junior goalies who are uncommitted, so I'm interested to see who they're able to get. Even on short notice, the Bulldogs have a chance to add a pretty solid goalie for the 2017-18 season and hopefully beyond.

With three freshmen goalies on the roster, UMD had none committed for future years. While it might look like a scramble drill at this point, they know where to look and it shouldn't be a drawn-out process.


Pionk, meanwhile, confirmed Monday his decision to leave UMD and head to pro hockey. A free agent, Pionk's destination isn't yet known, but making his decision now opens the door for him to visit NHL franchises on their dime, instead of having to pay his own way for such trips if he didn't make the decision beforehand.

(It's a path J.T. Brown followed when he left after the 2011-12 season and eventually signed with Tampa Bay.)

The Hermantown native is a good-skating, right-shot defenseman with tremendous poise and the ability to take over games. He should attract plenty of interest from NHL teams. Money-wise, there won't be a lot of difference in the offers he gets (there are maximums on these deals and bonuses), so Pionk will be allowed to make a decision based on the fit, system, and perhaps most importantly, his path to the NHL.

Matt Wellens indicated the possibility that defenseman commits Dylan Samberg or Hunter Lellig could come in early. Both are draft eligible this summer for the first time. If the UMD coaches don't want to bring one of them in a year earlier than planned, look for them to recruit a player to fill Pionk's spot on the roster. But with him gone, Nick Wolff (37 games, 2-10-12) and Jarod Hilderman (11 games, 0-1-1) are the only players back with any real notable experience from the 2016-17 season. Nick McCormack only played four games, has 24 games played in three years, and has yet to show he's a viable option for significant minutes. Will Campion got in just one game, and it was in October.

Who's coming in? Two Andersons -- Mikey and Matt -- and a Perunovich (Scott). Mikey Anderson is Joey's brother, while Matt is not related. Expect both Andersons to eat a lot of the missing minutes. Perunovich might be a bit more of a developmental prospect early, but once he settles in, his vision and puck-moving ability will be highly-valued, especially on the power play.

With Pionk's departure, UMD is probably short at least one player. Would assume they want eight defensemen to start the season. If Samberg or Lellig don't come in early, I would expect UMD to recruit another player to fill the void. Time will tell what direction UMD decides to go.


Will there be other departures? It doesn't appear so. Joey Anderson, Adam Johnson, and Riley Tufte, likely the biggest "flight risks" among the remaining returnees, have all confirmed their intention to return to school.

It leaves UMD with what appears to be a formidable offensive group that might be a bit leaky in the back end while the young guys get acclimated. It also prioritizes the already-important work that these players do on their own over the summer. Everyone will need to report in great shape and prepared to learn the Bulldog way when the leaves (which will come in soon, I promise) start to change colors.

Check out @BruceCiskie on Twitter for more discussion. Enjoy the NHL playoffs.

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