NASHVILLE – Predators defenseman Seth Jones can’t get away from that late June day in 2013.
He was the consensus top prospect in the June 30 draft held in Newark, N.J. – a 6-foot-4 cornerstone defenseman with a right-handed shot. He had mobility, hockey smarts an athlete’s pedigree from his father Popeye, a former NBA player. There was even the thought that Jones could grow another inch or two.
The history from then on is well documented. Colorado, Florida and Tampa all got scared of the ‘scientific’ wisdom that defensemen take longer to develop and all took forwards. And Jones slipped to the Predators at No. 4 and vowed to make the teams who didn't select him pay. Check the photo I took from that day. He didn't seem thrilled.
Seth Jones is not impressed ...
Interestingly in their sophomore years Jones seems about as far along as No. 1 pick Nathan MacKinnon, No. 2 pick Aleksander Barkov and No. 3 pick Jonathan Drouin. So much for generic reasoning about blueliners and the draft.
“We were all drafted to separate teams and we all went our separate ways,” Jones said. “They’re always involved in games and in highlights. I’m not keeping a close eye on them to see how many points they have and how many I need. They’re great players and they’re always going to be.”
A year ago, MacKinnon was zipping toward a 63-point season and Calder Trophy honors. At that stage, he was indeed ahead of the then 19-year-old Jones, who hit a bit of a mid-season wall and registered four points from March 1 through his final game April 13.
It was tough with Jones, just because of the hype thrust on him with Nashville. He played on the top pair at the start of the year when Roman Josi went down with a concussion in the second game. And he played so well that it was easy to see him as some sort of hockey defensive savior for a team that lost Ryan Suter to free agency two years earlier.
But with young players it doesn’t always work out that way. There’s a consistency factor that needs to be developed. And that has been the focus of Jones this year.
He’s not a top pairing defenseman, and actually started the season on the third pair with Anton Volchenkov, a crafty stay-at-home left-handed veteran who has let Jones use his speed and size to roam freely in the system of new coach Peter Laviolette. Also, Jones has been hidden from a match-up perspective. According to Behind the Net, his 5-on-5 Corsi quality of competition is the lowest amongst Nashville’s regular defensemen at -0.360.
But that’s not a bad situation It’s just what teams do to protect young players and shield them from losing confidence at a tender stage of their developments.
And as injuries have taken a toll on Nashville’s blueline, Jones has seen his responsibilities climb. And he has rewarded the coaching staff with this patient approach by taking this opportunity to a higher level. He has 20 points in 55 games this year, and had 25 in 77 a year ago. Meanwhile, he’s averaging 19:04 per-night to 19:37 a year ago, though he hasn’t played under 20 minutes in a game since Jan. 6.
“I started the season playing 17 or 18 minutes per-night,” Jones said. “I think the more minutes you play the more you get into the game, the more hits you take and give and the more you’re involved.”
On a Feb. 3 game against Toronto, Jones saw an open opportunity jumped into the play and scored a goal … on a shorthanded breakaway. It’s not often a defenseman gets these chances, but there are three reasons why it worked for the Arlington, Texas native.
For one, he’s incredibly skilled. Two, Laviolette gives all his defensemen the green light to go, regardless of the situation. Three, it was against the Maple Leafs – but that’s another story.
“I got lucky. I gambled a bit on a breakout and it just ended up on my stick and I saw no one in front of me and ended up scoring,” Jones said. “Honestly I’m terrible at breakaways. Going in when I was at the blueline. I was wondering if I was going to do a move or shoot. I had no idea. I just decided to shoot it and it went in.”
Said friend and Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba, “There’s definitely trust and you have to have the skill to read the play, because I’m sure it’s something he read with the skills to score.”
So as for that whole ‘conventional’ wisdom that defensemen take longer to develop? MacKinnon has hit major sophomore slump mode, on pace for 13 goals in 82 games. Barkov has turned into a solid two-way talent for Florida, but is averaging 16:43 per-contest.
Drouin spent last season in junior and has two goals in 46 games, though he has 23 assists.
All are developing at their own pace and at different rates. Is Jones ahead of the other three? He’s probably about the same right now. But at very least he’s showing that the defenseman theory may not hold true to all. At least with him.
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