Two years before he started playing the best hockey of any defenseman on the planet, Seth Jones stood there on the ice, getting screamed at like a toddler who had just drawn on the walls in permanent marker.
He’d heard the rumors. He’d seen all the viral-video tirades in post-game pressers. He knew John Tortorella was a hardass, the kind of coach who stands inches from your face and showers you with spittle when you tick him off. It was January 2016, and Jones, freshly traded from the Nashville Predators, arrived with the Columbus Blue Jackets expecting a fire-breather behind the bench. Tortorella didn’t disappoint. Jones admits he got scolded plenty that first half-season. But he also quickly learned something about himself: he liked it.
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. This was the phenom, remember? Son of NBA player Popeye Jones, blessed with an unfair wingspan at 6-foot-4, stride for stride with Nathan MacKinnon in the race for No. 1 overall pick for most of the 2012-13 season. This was the kid who grew up a Colorado Avalanche fan with his dad playing for the Denver Nuggets and got tips from Joe Sakic on how to get a head start on a hockey career. (The answer: start skating early and take lessons before you even play the game.)
It’s no wonder, then, that Tortorella’s speeches were so tailor-made for Jones. He was exposed to the pro-sports life as a boy, hard-wired to want the pressure, to feed off expectation and responsibility. “He was expecting the most out of me, and not just me but every single individual on our team,” Jones said. “You are held to a level of expectation every single night of consistency and hard work and dedication to the team. The great thing about Torts is he is always honest with you. He is never going to B.S. you, and if you have a question for him, he is always going to let you know exactly how he feels, whether it’s about hockey, something on the ice or off the ice.”
Tortorella trusted him from Day 1, and Jones has since found a real swagger to his game. But unlocking it took time. His formative years in Nashville were crucial. It helped to have veterans such as captain Shea Weber, still in his prime, showing him how to be a pro. But Jones singles out Phil Housley, then the Predators’ assistant coach, as a key mentor. Housley, like Jones, was a U.S.-born first-round pick who broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old prodigy – he set a league record for points by an 18-year-old blueliner (66) that still stands today – so there was a relatability between him and Jones. “What I loved about Phil was that he let you play the game,” Jones said. “Mistakes were not…he would always tell you, ‘Try that again,’ or ‘Maybe try this next time.’ He always wanted you to be confident in your game, whether you were having a good night or a bad night.”
By the midway point of the 2015-16 season, Jones had become sure of himself. But he was averaging just 19:39 a game on a team with the league’s most stacked defense corps, featuring Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. Jones was just 21 and still sponging up the game, and when the blockbuster “hockey trade” happened Jan. 6, sending him to Columbus straight-up for big center Ryan Johansen, Jones was emotional. But he wasn’t disappointed. He knew he needed to go a place where he’d be able to grow as a player, and he was going to a team starved for blueline help. In his 41 second-half games as a Blue Jacket, his ice time spiked almost five minutes per game. He was immediately entrenched as their cornerstone defenseman.
In 2016-17, along came breakout rookie Zach Werenski, and the pair have been inseparable on and off the ice. Since Werenski’s debut, he and Jones have played 2,299 minutes together and 229:25 apart at 5-on-5, meaning they’ve spent an incredible 90 percent of their ice time together. It’s thus no wonder the Jackets have taken off in the standings over the past two seasons. As Jones explains, he and Werenski make it their goal every night to control the game one way or another. That could be on offense, as the pair combined for 32 goals last season, but it’s just as likely to happen on defense. They take pride in facing opponents’ top lines every night. Among the seven Blue Jackets defensemen who played at least 500 minutes last season at 5-on-5, Jones and Werenski ranked first and third in quality of competition. Jones in particular dominated the possession game relative to his teammates. His 5-on-5 Corsi was 4.47 percent higher than the team’s average, and he ranked 12th in the NHL in Corsi Relative among all workhorse D-men, a.k.a. those who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5. That placed Jones alongside names like Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Ekholm, Brent Burns and Dougie Hamilton. Jones had joined a special tier of top two-way defensemen who dictate the pace of play. “The confidence factor,” said Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen, “from the coaching staff to him and how well he was playing, how much he was playing, how much we relied on him, I think made him realize, ‘Hey, you know what? I can be the best here.’ He was taking on more and more responsibility.”
In the final few months of 2017-18, Jones played peerless hockey at his position. During one 16-game stretch from mid-February to early April, he had eight goals and 21 points while also playing lockdown defense. He was such a force after the all-star break that he vaulted himself into the Norris Trophy discussion, finishing fourth, and earned second-team all-star status. ‘Seth Jones The Phenom’ had finally arrived. “Since I’ve been on the team in my rookie season,” Werenski said, “you can see he plays with this confidence that he knows he’s going to go out there and make the right play and help this team win. But last year, he took that to a new level. He would get the puck in our ‘D’ zone, and I knew he was going end to end and no one was stopping him. Or someone was coming wide on him, and I knew they weren’t getting the shot off. He just had this confidence to him last year, and he played with that every game. It was pretty awesome to see.”
He just had this confidence to him last year, and he played with that every game. It was pretty awesome to see
– Zach Werenski
Jones turns 24 just before the season starts. Kekalainen believes Jones can get even stronger to maximize his natural athleticism. He’s still sheltered from tough minutes at times, too, as he gets a lot more zone starts in the offensive zone than the defensive zone. But that’s not really a knock on Jones. It’s merely Tortorella realizing he has to deploy Jones and Werenski as scoring weapons given their skills. The truth is, though, Jones’ bosses are more impressed with his defensive growth than his recent eye-popping point totals. “What he does the best is defend, and with his skating, geez, he’s a hard guy to beat to get scoring chances,” Kekalainen said. “He’s got the reach, he’s got the anticipation, he reads the game well, but then if you want to try and beat him with quickness or speed, for a guy who is 6-foot-4, he’s such a great skater that you can’t beat him. A lot of times, big guys have a tough time turning, but he’s very agile, he’s very mobile.”
The perception now is that 2017-18, in which Jones amassed 16 goals, 57 points and 24:36 of average ice time, was just a warmup. This season shapes up to be his “Can you see me now?” performance. The THN pre-season voting panel picked him to win the Norris. He’ll have to freakishly overachieve to bag that hardware next June, however, judging by the award’s politics, which seem to make every franchise defenseman spend a few years in runner-up purgatory before getting his “turn.” Jones enters his sixth season. Chris Pronger got his Norris in his seventh season, Doughty in his eighth, Victor Hedman in his ninth. We can at least bet on Jones being a finalist for years to come. Not that he cares, though, and he doesn’t merely mumble the cliche about hockey being a team game. He explains that setting goals, be they awards or points, puts him in a selfish mindset, which he believes gets in the way of the bigger picture.
OK, fine, that was just a fancy way to dress up the cliche, but Jones has a way with words. He’s an articulate, philosophical young man, and his personality has started to influence Columbus’ dressing room. Nick Foligno is the captain, but Kekalainen believes Foligno will lean on Jones for leadership more and more. As Werenski puts it, Jones isn’t a chatterbox, but he’s on point whenever he does speak. People listen to him.
And Jones’ growing role as a speaker is starting to transcend the sport. With a black father and white mother, Jones is one of the league’s most prominent minority stars. He’s the Jackets’ ambassador for the Hockey is for Everyone initiative, which promotes inclusivity. He says he hasn’t been a target of racism at any point in his career, but he felt the shockwaves when Chicago Blackhawks fans taunted Devante Smith-Pelly last season. “One (incident) is more than enough,” Jones said. “If it’s still happening in 2018, we need to talk about it more. I know Chicago did their part in kicking those fans out and not letting them come back. Everyone understands African-Americans are a minority in this sport, and that’s just another reason why I think we can grow the game in different areas with Hockey is for Everyone.”
Jones is a willing ambassador but not necessarily a confident one just yet. The words on that heavy subject don’t flow like a river. He’s not too far removed from his teenage years, so he’s still learning how to use his influence for good. Remember, this is a kid who had his mother, Amy, living with him when he got traded in 2016. Jones still leans on his parents like most millennials do. His dad gives him sports-related advice on specifics such as injury recovery, while his mom is there for every non-sports chat, though Jones jokes she calls herself a pro athlete. He remains inseparable from his mom, who visits him whenever she can, though she also makes time for his younger brother, Caleb, an Edmonton Oilers pick toiling in AHL Bakersfield. She sends texts and memes. She knows how to speak her son’s language, which is still a youthful one. Jones and Werenski like riding mopeds and playing video games and watching football together. Jones’ favorite place to go is any beach, anywhere. He’s clearly not done being a “young person.”
Yet he also shows signs of transitioning to adulthood. Werenski raves about Jones’ cooking. Videos online show off his impressive knife skills. He takes pride in making meals for other Blue Jackets players. “I like trying new things, and the old chicken breast in the oven gets annoying and kind of old sometimes,” Jones said. “Even during the season last year, some of the guys would cook every now and then, and I started cooking a lot more on off days. In the summer, me and my brother cook almost every night. It’s relaxing to me. I don’t know why. We just hang out and cook. It’s definitely one of my hobbies.”
Jones’ teammates hope he’s cooking feasts for them deep into June next year, because 2018-19 is the most important season in Blue Jackets history. The past two seasons yielded point totals of 108 and 97, the best in the franchise’s 17 years, but both efforts culminated in first-round playoff ousters. In each case, they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion, first Pittsburgh, then Washington. The latter defeat was particularly crushing after Columbus won Games 1 and 2 in Washington and took Game 3 to double overtime.
The Jackets burned two crucial opportunities, and the urgency increases with top scorer Artemi Panarin and two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky a season away from unrestricted free agency and Panarin possibly on the trade block. Tortorella’s raging-bull brand of coaching tends to have a shelf life, just as Mike Keenan’s did, so while Torts’ troops follow him into the trenches now, a mutiny may loom in a season or two. Pittsburgh didn’t have cap room to add any major pieces this off-season, while Washington lost coach Barry Trotz, center Jay Beagle, backup goalie Philipp Grubauer and plenty of brain cells during well-deserved Cup parties.
The Blue Jackets have a window right now to seize the Metropolitan Division. And Jones, the rock who will play about half of every game and push the pace at both ends of the ice, is as important to that cause as anyone. He’s ready to do what every giddy scout and pundit predicted he would when he was an 18-year-old prospect. He wants the pressure heaped on his broad shoulders. He lives for it.