By Stu Hackel
So, here's how a 6-foot-4, 19-year-old, born in Texas, the son of a pro basketball player, announces his arrival in big time hockey.
It was Oct. 19 and the score was tied 1-1. The hometown Canadiens had been pressing for the winner. But with Montreal's Bell Centre game clock showing 1:33 remaining in regulation, Nashville's Seth Jones got the puck at the offensive blue line. He took a stride and fired a pass along the boards deep in the zone to Nashville teammate David Legwand. Montreal's Travis Moen moved to cut off Jones' path along the boards, but Jones had other ideas. He rolled off Moen to the inside and saw lots of ice in front of him. Cruising into the faceoff circle, he took Legwand's sharp backhanded return pass, Moen in pursuit, about 30 feet from Carey Price in the Canadiens goal.
But his route to Price was not clear. In front of Price, the Predators' Patric Hornqvist and Canadiens' Josh Gorges battled for position. Jones kept cruising toward the goal, however, and Hornqvist turned away to create a lane for him. At first, Gorges stuck with Hornqvist, then realized he'd be giving Jones a clearer shot on goal. He tried to move back, but only succeeded in contorting himself, screwing his body down to the ice.
Jones eyed this tangle in his path and, with his long arms, he smartly pulled the puck a few inches toward him and easily maneuvered to his left, deftly changing the shooting angle. In the same smooth motion, as Moen dove in vain behind him, Jones whipped the puck past Price's stick, bulging the net.
Twenty-one thousand sat stunned. A manchild in enemy clothes had effectively ended the game. The entire sequence had taken all of five seconds, a complicated play made to look easy, something that a number of NHLers 10 years his senior could not have done.
Welcome to the NHL, Seth Jones.
He may already be on the cusp of stardom just a handful of games into his professional career. But long before that goal, his second of the young season, Seth Jones was touted as even more, a potential superstar. Sports Illustrated put him on their radar when he was 14, although scouts had already been eyeing him. When he was 10, he played pee wee hockey with and against 12 year olds, and throughout his development years, he routinely "played-up," out of his age group, and dominated, largely due to his size, his extremely fluid skating, his natural leadership, a fierce competiveness and a thirst to always get better.
He went from being "Popeye's kid" to being "Jonesy," in the modern habit of simple hockey nicknames. (Oh, for the days of Rocket, Boom Boom, Porky, Old Bootnose, Flash, Toe, Ukey, Punch and Gump!).
He also became a winner, playing on championship squads -- twice for Team USA at the IIHF World Under-18 tourney, then last January at the IIHF World Junior Under-20 tournament and, in May, winning the WHL title with the major junior Portland Winterhawks. He was always quite mature, a leader and a good teammate. In short, Seth Jones appeared to be the complete package before ever stepping on NHL ice.
He's been touted as a future face of hockey, perhaps one day its first African-American star, something he simultaneously embraces and wishes to clarify. He is, he says, both black and white and, though he recognizes his special responsibility to African-Americans, he wants to help spread the game everywhere.
Most observers ranked him as the best player in last June's NHL Draft. When the first three clubs passed on him -- a decision some believe the Avalanche, Panthers and Lightning will regret -- Preds GM David Poile became, for one day at least, the happiest man in North America. In Poile's view, Jones was "the prototype player you are looking for on the back end -- tall, lanky, big range and reach for a defenseman. Obviously, he's got the skating that's fabulous for a big man, skating that's exceptional. His hockey sense is there all the time, defense to offense. His shot is getting better all the time, too."
Today, the smooth-skating, baby-faced Jones plays on Nashville's top defense pair alongside captain Shea Weber, matched against the very best opposition players. He's on at even strength, the power play and penalty kill and, through his first dozen games, he averaged 24:42 of ice time. That ranked 18th among all NHLers, second on his team and first among all rookies, a sure sign of the trust the Preds coaches have in him.
"I'm getting a lot more ice time than I expected coming in and I'm thankful for that," Jones said over the phone on the drive to practice earlier this week.
It's highly unusual for a teenaged defenseman to break into the NHL and have this sort of impact. Poile has only drafted one comparable player and that was three decades back: Scott Stevens, now a Hall of Famer, broke in that way when Poile managed the Washington Capitals.
And, oh yeah -- Jones has done all this while playing out of position. Normally a right side d-man, coach Barry Trotz converted Jones to the left side. That transition can fluster even seasoned pros, especially when playing pucks along the boards. But Jones' superior skating helps. "It requires a little bit of footwork and it requires you [to] use your backhand more," he says. "I don't think it's as difficult as people make it out to be, but it's an adjustment."
Life is all about adjustments, and for Jones, they include having grown men with families as teammates for the first time, learning his place as a young guy in the dressing room, signing his first equipment endorsement deal (and having to switch skate brands), and lots of pesky interviewers. None of it seems to perturb him. His poise could be the consequence of being raised by a pro athlete, retired NBA forward Ronald "Popeye" Jones, but with his father often on the road, Seth credits his mother Amy as playing the biggest role in molding his character.
If Jones entered the season with extra motivation to prove he was the best in his draft class…
…he also had the good fortune of joining a franchise that specializes in developing strong defensemen, although they usually marinate on the Predators' Milwaukee farm team until they are NHL-ready. Jones was ready on draft day.
Another piece of good fortune was that Nashville had just hired Phil Housley as an assistant coach to run their defense. The all-time scoring leader among U.S.-born NHL defenseman, Housley had been head coach of that gold medal U.S. national team at the World Junior Championships last winter on which Jones played a key role. They already had a good working relationship.
And, once upon a time, Housley had been Seth Jones -- or at least a smaller version of him. Thirty years ago, an 18-year-old Housley, blessed with exceptional skating and puck skills, broke into the NHL as a teenager with the Buffalo Sabres. If anyone could relate to Jones' journey, it was Housley, who has overseen Seth's development at both the elite amateur level and now his rapid improvement as a pro.
"It takes a defenseman probably until they're 24, 25 to really understand the position," Housley says. "But playing against world class players at the World Junior tournament, and then playing against world class players at this level, with his athleticism -- and he has a great hockey mind -- he's able to make adjustments along the way immediately. There's a lot of things that maybe he could have gotten away with in junior, but not at this level, and he's made those adjustments."
What improvements has Housley seen they reunited in Nashville? Jones' passes are crisper and he's enhanced his "escapability," the talent to elude forecheckers and make a play.
But there's also recognition that Seth Jones is not yet a finished product, and to meet that great potential requires great effort. A big believer in positive reinforcement, Housley is forever assembling video clips of all his defensemen, showing what they are doing well, but also what they need to correct.
One of Jones' weakness is puck-watching, looking at the developing play rather than sticking with the man he's supposed to defend. "We've really tried to work on that," Jones reveals. "It's extremely hard and I think that comes with a little more experience. There's no excuse when a guy beats me back to the net. We've done quite a bit of video on that, showing when I boxed out the guy and when I didn't. Maybe it results in a second opportunity for them, or it ends in a clean breakout for us. Things are moving so fast and, in that split second, you're not looking at the guy you're supposed to be covering and it's over -- he's already to the net and he's maybe scoring a goal. You always have to have your head on a swivel and I know that. But it's tough at this level.
"I think that's the beauty of playing with Shea Weber right now," he continues. "You can see things, even during the shift. You make a mistake and you can see the things that he does that make him so great."
One of the top defensemen in the game, the 28-year-old rock solid Weber bailed Jones out in a game last month in Winnipeg. Speedy Jets winger Evander Kane, whose two-step acceleration is among the best in the world, flew past Jones with the puck along the boards just inside the Predators zone. Weber darted over from his right defensive position and, deep in the zone, dove to block Kane's attempt.
"That's a situation where I know I made a mistake," Jones says. "I know what I did and I should have done differently. I was a little too flatfooted and shouldn't have been standing next to one of the fastest guys in the league without my feet moving."
The error caused Housley to break out his iPad between periods and quietly review the play on video with Seth, explaining the better way to do it, adding a visual reminder that Jones has made the right play other times. "I like how he doesn't embarrass you in front of the team," Jones says. "He'll tell you what you need to know and tell you only."
"He's gaining more confidence," says Housley, "and one of the biggest things in that position in knowing your opponent. What are their characteristics? What do they do? And that's going to take some time because he's facing these guys for the first time. But once it becomes the second time around, he'll understand what other players try to do, what their tendencies are. For the most part, he's done a good job."
Asked whether his biggest adjustment to the NHL has been the speed, the physicality, or playing against grown men, Jones laughs. "Probably a combination of all those," he says. "The speed is probably number one. Then, it's probably the physicality and strength of guys. You can't just knock everyone off the puck in this league."
Whether Jones uses his size to become a Weber-like bruiser is uncertain. He's patterned his game after the future Hall of Famer Nick Lidstrom of Detroit, using body positioning, a quick stick and a cerebral approach more than a crushing check.
"Guys like Seth, they don't have to be really physical," says Housley. "I think once in a while you have to keep the other team honest and be hard, but the amount of minutes they play, if they don't have to defend much in their own zone, they're conserving energy and they can jump up in the play and be sharp on the power play and killing penalties."
Teaming with Weber has helped build Seth's confidence. "They're two big defenseman who have great range and it's tough to penetrate them," Housley adds. "When they're boxing out and containing, it's tough to get to the net."
The union between Jones and Weber on the ice is both verbal and non-verbal. In a very short time they've learned to anticipate each other's moves and have learned to communicate just by looking at each other in the uncanny, high-speed manner by which great hockey chemistry is forged.
They've proven to be a useful tag-team, as the Blues energetic forward T.J. Oshie learned in October. Jones had Oshie contained with the puck along the end boards behind the Nashville net, sealing off each try Oshie made to get himself and the puck free. Then, wordlessly, Jones and Weber switched --Jones backed off to defend the front of the net and Weber, who bodychecks with the best of them, moved in and plastered Oshie to the boards with a hard hit, taking him out of the play.
Their partnership began last summer, in phone discussions when the Preds captain called to welcome Jones to the team and provide an informal orientation. It continued when Jones got to Nashville for training camp and Weber invited Jones to stay at his house (Jones now has his own place with his mother).
Seth and Shea weren't slated to be defense partners; another good, young puck mover Roman Josi began the season with Weber until he was concussed on an unsuspended charging foul by then-Avalanche forward Steve Downie in the season's second game. Jones replaced him and they've functioned so well together, the Preds kept the tandem intact upon Josi's return this week.
While his play without the puck rapidly improves, Jones' offensive game is already at a high level. In that Winnipeg game, he used the same skills that led to the goal in Montreal to deke big Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien on no fewer than three occasions, the final one in overtime, which led to a shot that pinged off the crossbar. It would have given Jones another highlight reel game-winner. Instead, the Jets grabbed the rebound and rushed into Nashville's zone. But hustling back, Jones teamed up with Weber to blunt the attack, and get the puck to teammates who scored the sudden death tally not long afterward.
"That's where the range comes in," Housley said of Jones' dangling moves around big Byfuglien. "If he can get a guy to bite a little bit, he can get the puck out very wide and the guy can't poke check him, and he can use his body and his skating to go around him. His puck handling is very, very good and I just think he's going to get better because he's just growing into his body. He hasn't really filled out physically."
Of course, Seth's play could level off -- it's not uncommon for young players, although his current trajectory is consistently upward. Still, his effectiveness will draw attention from the opposition. They'll start to single him out for special attention.
The Predators don't seem overly concerned.
"In today's game, as a defenseman, you're just going to have to take a hit to make a play," Housley says. "There's been guys who try to finish checks on him but he's used his range and his skating to not absorb the full hit."
"I think there's ups and downs with every young player," says Poile. "It's a long, long season. All I can tell you is that he's prepared physically and mentally because of his conditioning and he's very, very focused, and very mature for his age. I'm pretty confident the he's going to be able to handle whatever comes his way."
Would that include, farfetched as it may have been a few months back, a spot on the U.S. Olympic roster? Poile, who doubles as the GM for Team USA, has Jones on the list of potential defenseman for Sochi.
"It was going to be a longshot at the beginning of the season, but from the reports we're getting in and the discussions we're having in the committee, he's certainly in the mix," Poile says. "For young players like him -- and there's a few other guys that just don't have the experience -- just let them play and if they're the best player at the end of the day, that would be fantastic."
Fantastic is what Seth Jones seems destined to be.
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The former NHL director of broadcasting, publishing and video, Stu Hackel has written about hockey for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, SI.com, The Hockey News, The (Montreal) Gazette, Goal magazine andThe Village Voice. He wrote his first hockey stories nearly 50 years ago when he published a newsletter for the Gump Worsley Fan Club.