NEWARK, N.J. – There was a very tiny sliver of silver lining in Seth Jones tumbling to No. 4 in the NHL draft. It turns out Jones’ father, former NBA journeyman Popeye, is originally from Dresden, Tenn., which is about a two-hour drive from Nashville. Popeye’s mother still lives there and, hey, the Predators will take all the new season-ticket holders they can get.
But that was about it, at least from Seth Jones’ perspective. The young man said all the right things, but everything about his body language suggested he was not a happy young man. And he shouldn’t be. Until a week before the draft, Jones was the consensus first overall pick. But Jones was more a victim of a bias against taking defensemen first overall than anything else.
You see, the last defenseman taken first overall in the draft was Erik Johnson seven years ago and that hasn’t worked out so well. Defensemen, by their very nature, are long-term projects and teams picking that high don’t want/can’t afford to wait a couple of years for a player to develop. Even though big, right-shot defensemen who can play both ends of the ice are about as rare as a lunar eclipse, the wait time for them to become dominant players is too long.
“I know people say it takes time for defensemen to really grow in the league,” Jones said. “A couple of years at least, so hopefully I can prove that theory wrong.”
Jones might, but chances are there will a learning curve for him that will include its share of ups and downs. The good thing is he’s with an organization that knows a little about developing defensemen. Jones will likely take some time because that is the case with even the best young defensemen. But when they do emerge, teams are rewarded for their patience. Twenty years ago, the Ottawa Senators went with the sure-thing offensive superstar in Alexander Daigle with the first overall pick, passing on a big, nasty, raw defenseman by the name of Chris Pronger. Pronger was a disaster early in his career, but once he grasped the importance of devoting himself to conditioning and being better, he forged what will one day be a Hall of Fame career. Daigle, meanwhile, showed some promise early in his career, but will go down as one of worst first overall picks in NHL history. After he was taken, Daigle remarked, “Nobody remembers who went No. 2.”
“And who’s eating the sh–sandwich on that one now?” cracked Pronger, who was at the Philadelphia Flyers table in New Jersey and did some video scouting for them leading up to the draft.
Nobody is suggesting that Nathan McKinnon, Alexander Barkov or Jonathan Drouin will be the second coming of Daigle, but Jones has an opportunity for redemption here. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could be remembered as the best player in this draft 10 years from now. Phil Housley, who is an assistant coach with the Predators, has suggested that Jones and Shea Weber could start next season as a defense pairing, which would give opponents 12 feet, eight inches and 437 pounds of defenseman to contend with on the way to the Nashville net. (And has it occurred to anyone that perhaps one day Weber’s mega-contract might have to be moved and Jones could seamlessly take over as his successor as the Predators lynchpin defenseman?)
Playing with Weber in the short term will help Jones game, but down the road the Predators may elect to split them up. That would give them the chance to have one of the two on the ice virtually all game, which would cause all kinds of difficulties for opponents. For now, though, Jones is eager to show the world that he merited a higher selection.
“You definitely want to prove them wrong and you definitely want to show them why they should have picked you,” Jones said. “That’s not my only goal next year, but it’s definitely on my list.”
MacKinnon pulled ahead of Jones primarily on the strength of his Memorial Cup performance, leading the Halifax Mooseheads to the title over Jones’ Portland Winterhawks. But in the World Junior tournament, it was Jones who was the impact player, while Canada wasted MacKinnon’s talents by barely using him and putting him in a fourth-line role.
And the fact is, it will be a while before we truly find out who won this draft. There could be a kid picked in the fifth round that only the hockey geeks and junior hockey fans have heard of who could end up being better than all the stars picked in the first round.
Seth Jones has lots of time to prove his worth. If and when he does, the Predators might be remembered as the luckiest team at the 2013 draft. Jones basically fell into their laps, making it probably the easiest draft decision GM David Poile and his scouting staff have ever made.
Jones was asked whether he was disappointed that he wasn’t picked by the Avalanche, considering he was introduced to the game when his father played in Denver and Joe Sakic was a huge influence on him.
“Yeah, it definitely sounded too good to be true,” Jones said. “It turned out that way.”
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.