Seth Jones took his first tentative steps as a minor hockey player in Denver and, thanks to some luck in the NHL draft lottery, will have an opportunity to start his pro career there as well.
The Avalanche jumped one spot to claim the first overall pick in the June 30 entry draft and even though they have not made up their minds for public consumption, it would be almost impossible for them to pass on Jones, a franchise player who has the potential to anchor an NHL defense corps for 15 years. That should be gift-wrapping enough for a team that has floundered on the blueline since trading Kevin Shattenkirk to the St. Louis Blues. But when you consider how the Avalanche have struggled to maintain relevance in their own market, you’d think that would make Jones a shoo-in to go No. 1.
“It’s too early to go along those lines,” said Rick Pracey, the Avs director of amateur scouting. “We think there’s a lot of good players at the top, so we have a lot of internal deliberation to do and it will be a process. But he’s a name, there’s no question about that.”
(The Avs, by the way, sent Pracey as the team’s representative while GM Greg Sherman stayed in Denver, which is completely fitting since Sherman is the most anonymous GM in the league anyway. We don’t profess to know why Sherman sat out the lottery, but the optics aren’t really good, especially considering the Avs won it. Two GMs with a lot more experience and accomplishments than Sherman – David Poile of the Nashville Predators and Jim Rutherford of the Carolina Hurricanes – managed to clear their schedules to be there for the lottery.)
Jones was born in Texas, but was introduced to hockey when his father, NBA player Ronald “Popeye” Jones, played for the Denver Nuggets. With his team playing out of the same arena as the Avalanche, the senior Jones sought out Hall of Famer Joe Sakic for guidance on what would make his son a better hockey player. Sakic wisely told him that it would be best for his son to concentrate on skating and it wasn’t long before the younger Jones emerged as one of the top young players in USA Hockey.
Jones would be a great fit for any team, but whoever drafts him will have to show some patience in developing him. As well-rounded as Jones is, it is far more difficult for a defenseman to step into the NHL and play a regular role than it is for a forward. So a team that takes one of Jonathan Drouin or Nathan MacKinnon will get players who have a chance to have a greater impact in the short term, but the one who gets Jones will have a defensive commodity that every team covets in the long term - a right shot blueliner who can play in all situations and log 30 minutes a game.
Some scouts describe Jones as a player who comes along only once every decade or so. There’s a reason, they say, why Shea Weber was offered that ridiculous contract by the Philadelphia Flyers last summer and that’s because defensemen who can have that kind of impact on the game are almost impossible to find. So when you have an opportunity to get one without giving up any assets or money, you pounce on it.
“It’s intriguing,” Pracey said. “We can dance around (this question) all night, but for sure there’s no question he’s a name at the top that’s being discussed and rightly so. He’s a quality player and we have quality coverage on him and we’re well aware of what we think he is as a player. We’re going to watch him down the stretch here.”
The great thing about this year is that the consensus three players at the top are all still playing for their club teams. Jones has helped the Portland Winterhawks to the final of the Western League and Drouin and MacKinnon are playing for the Halifax Mooseheads, a team that has yet to lose a game and opens the Quebec League final against the Baie Comeau Drakkar Friday night.
Panthers GM Dale Tallon wasn’t terribly upset that his team didn’t land the first overall pick despite leading the way with a 25 percent chance of winning the lottery. And in reality, picking a player such as Drouin would give the Panthers a left winger to play with probable rookie-of-the-year candidate Jonathan Huberdeau.
That’s not a bad way to start a rebuild.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.