TORONTO – It didn’t take long for Seth Jones to learn a hard lesson about playing defence in the NHL, courtesy of Detroit Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk.
“Datsyuk put it through my legs and I almost fell and broke my ankles,” Jones said. “That was kind of a welcome to the (NHL) moment.”
In addition to providing the highly-touted Nashville Predators rookie defenceman with a reality check, it also gave him a preview of the level of play the Olympics could provide. Even at 19 years old Jones is on the United States’ radar for Sochi, something he’s trying not to think about despite the fact his general manager, David Poile, is the man making the decision.
“I’ve been focused on the Nashville Predators and what I can do to help us win,” Jones said Thursday afternoon. “First I had to make the team, and I did that. I’m still focused on the Predators right now, but if I get the opportunity to go over to Sochi it would be a huge honour and very exciting.”
It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Jones was invited to U.S. Olympic orientation camp in August after being the No. 4 pick in the draft, and he is reportedly one of 12 defencemen being considered for eight spots.
That’s the result of a strong start to his NHL career. Jones has three goals—including a game-winner at Bell Centre in Montreal and one on the power-play Thursday night against the Maple Leafs—and six assists and more importantly leads all rookies in ice time at 23:52 a game. No first-year player with 10 games or more of experience is even close.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz figured Jones could be his No. 5 defenceman this season. Now 22 games in, Jones is a front-runner for the Calder Trophy.
“I always say the point-1 per-centers are going to play right away,” Trotz said. “Seth came in and I didn’t know exactly how well he would be able to translate to the National Hockey League. I knew he could skate well enough. I thought he had a pretty good idea of the whole part of the game, the defensive part of the game and the offensive part of the game. He really has a lot of poise, a lot of maturity toward his game on and off the ice.”
Trotz said in a phone interview late last month that he knew Jones’ potential once he saw the Portland Winterhawks product play in the pre-season. Any hesitation Trotz had about giving Jones a prominent role on the Predators’ blue-line faded away, and he “just earned a spot.”
“It’s been great a great transition so far,” Jones said. “It’s been as easy as possible for me. I feel confident right now in the way that I’m playing day in and day out. I’m trying to stay consistent right now and it’s been great having guys like Shea Weber and Kevin Klein. Some of these guys have a lot of experience on the blue-line there and I’ve had the chance to play with both of them this season and it’s awesome to learn from guys like that on the ice.”
Jones fit naturally on a pair with Weber earlier in the season after the Predators’ captain invited the rookie to live with him while he was getting acclimated to Nashville. Weber said the goal was to “make him feel comfortable and feel like he’s a part of the team.”
“That’s being a terrific captain, that’s being a guy that I think recognizes a young man who could use some direction,” Trotz said. “That’s what leaders do, and that’s what Shea offered to Seth.”
Having Weber around as the No. 1 defenceman also offers Jones a measuring stick. But trying to play up to the standard of a three-time all-star and Canadian Olympian isn’t easy.
Trotz showed faith in Jones by giving him a heavy workload alongside Weber. A long road trip from late October through mid-November revealed some cracks.
“You just get mentally a little bit fried,” Trotz said. “He’s still a young man. He doesn’t have that man strength yet that comes with maturity. I think when we played a lot of back-to-back games and a lot of travel and you could see that he gets a little tired.”
If Jones is to fill the role current Minnesota Wild defenceman Ryan Suter had in Nashville, he better get used to playing through fatigue. Suter leads the league in ice time with his new team, while Jones is doing well so far as a second-pairing defenceman.
“We were playing him 28 minutes a night, so that had a lot to do with it,” Trotz said. “We brought his minutes back a little bit to around the 23 range and that’s a real good spot for him right now, physically and mentally and all that.”
Jones said his body is still going after being leaned on so heavily. His goal doesn’t have to be developing into a 30-minute-a-night dominant force as a teenager, rather his focus is on maintaining some consistency.
If he can harness that consistency over the next month or so, Jones could find himself representing the U.S. at the Olympics just over a year after playing in the world junior championship. Assuming Suter, Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers and Jack Johnson of the Columbus Blue Jackets are shoe-ins for Sochi, that would mean Jones is competing against the likes of Erik Johnson, John Carlson, Justin Faulk and Kevin Shattenkirk to make it.
Jones would be the youngest defenceman to represent the United States in the Olympics since NHL players began going in 1998. Bryan Berard was 20 at the ’98 Games in Nagano, and Erik Johnson was 21 when he was picked for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
For now, Jones has a more streamlined focus as he continues to adapt to playing in the NHL.
“There’s been some ups and downs already, and I know there’s going to be more,” he said.
Jones has some help in the form of assistant coach Phil Housley, considered the best American-born rush defenceman in the game’s history. The Predators hired Housley in May to help 22-year-old Ryan Ellis and 23-year-old Roman Josi before Jones fell to them at the draft a month later.
It worked out that Housley and Jones have some history through the U.S. National Team Development Program. Housley was Jones’ coach when the United States won world junior gold last year, and the lessons he can teach at the NHL level are even greater.
“There’s a really good trust factor,” Trotz said. “Phil has been in those situations as a young defenceman being drafted as high as he was. He can relate to a lot of those things that come your way. He’s been in the league a long time, he’s seen a lot of guys have success and a lot of guys maybe fail.”
Jones didn’t get passed over in the draft by the Avalanche, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning because he’s destined to fail or even fall short of lofty expectations. But it does generally take more time for young defencemen to develop.
The Predators are known for exercising patience with young players, but Trotz pointed out that they hadn’t drafted in the top four since 1998 when they selected David Legwand, who’s now in his 14th full season in Nashville.
Jones developing into a franchise cornerstone like Legwand and Weber is the long-term goal. But as far as natural progression, Trotz considers the next step for Jones the development of a commitment level reminiscent of Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque and Nicklas Lidstrom.
“Obviously he’s going to get physically bigger and stronger and more confident in himself,” Trotz said. “All the great players, they have a level of commitment—you see that with Sid Crosby. He’s committed to growing his game and being better than he was the year before. To me, that has to be Seth Jones if he’s going to take that next step.”