Tall, athletic, calm and poised beyond his 18 years, and coming off a hugely successful debut season in the Western Hockey League, Seth Jones was supposed to be the number-one pick at the 2013 NHL draft. At least that’s what the ISS rankings said before, during, and after last year’s junior hockey season. But once the draft arrived the Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers, and Tampa Bay Lightning all decided they didn’t need a smooth-skating defenseman when there were so many choice forwards in a plum draft class. So Nathan MacKinnon, Alexander Barkov, and Jonathan Drouin all heard their names called before the Portland Winterhawks' defenseman.
Seth Jones, Nashville's unexpected draft bounty (PHOTO: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
The Nashville Predators had already decided that if Jones were somehow to drop to the fourth pick - their reward for the worst season since the franchise’s expansion days in the late 1990s - they would snap him up. Never mind that a lack of scoring has historically been a major problem for the Preds. His talent level was too much to pass up for a franchise known for turning out All-Star defensemen like Kimmo Timonen, Dan Hamhuis, Ryan Suter, and Shea Weber, especially given how bad the team’s defense had actually become since Suter’s departure for Minnesota.
The selection of Jones was perhaps a momentary letdown for fans here in Nashville, given just how much offensive firepower was available in this draft and how we’ve longed for a reliable goalscorer since Paul Kariya left town. But his arrival has already paid off. Projections had him playing on the second pair all season as he learned to adjust to the NHL game. But with Roman Josi out of the lineup since the second game of the season thanks to a Steve Downie-induced concussion, Jones has been thrust into the limelight. Now he’s two-time Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber’s defense partner, averaging 23:06 of ice time a night through his first six NHL games, including playing point alongside Weber on the Preds’ top power play unit. Averaging nearly three shots on goal and two blocked shots per game so far, Jones also notched his first NHL goal the other night and has two assists to go with it.
Of course, NHL history is littered with incoming rookies who posted big numbers only to slow down when the rest of the league finally figures them out. That’s why his current numbers are a lot less important than what I see when I watch him play. He’s an incredibly smooth skater for being 6’4”, which can be attributed to the fact that his dad, former NBA player Popeye Jones, started Seth out on figure skating for two years before hockey on the advice of Joe Sakic. His puckhandling skills are better than most of the team’s blueliners and quite a few of its forwards. He reads developing plays like a veteran, a rarity for rookie defensemen in the world’s fastest league. Most impressively to me, he displays both a willingness to take matters into his own hands when his team is bogged down and an understanding of when to activate this extra gear. It’s the same kind of sense that his teammate Ryan Ellis has, except with the added bonus of an extra six inches and 30 pounds to keep him from being knocked off the puck too easily.
What’s particularly interesting about this is that the Nashville Predators have been notoriously patient in developing not just young defensemen but all of their young players. (The old adage around here is that “the road to Nashville leads through Milwaukee,” a reference to the Admirals AHL farm club.) With fan expectations growing by the year and a team weakened by both injury and free-agent departures, there’s no such luxury for the Preds this year. If they are going to fight for a playoff spot in what’s looking to be an incredibly tough new Central Division, Jones is going to be a big part of the game plan.
SO HOW ARE THE PREDS DOING ANYWAY?
They’re 3-3-0 after six games, a nice improvement over their 0-2-0 start.
The one loss was the game I happened to buy tickets to, a 4-0 home loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Way to pick the game there, Spaceman.) The Preds were, to my eyes, pretty easily the superior team for the first 30 minutes of that game, but Jonathan Bernier was rock-solid in goal. The Leafs woke up in the second half of the game and Bernier carried them to the win.
The three wins were all one-goal games, which we’ve come to expect from Barry Trotz’s squads. They picked up their first divisional win by beating the Minnesota Wild 3-2 in the home opener. Then they allowed the New York Islanders just 16 shots on goal to their own tally of 31, but they still only won 3-2. And last night they survived a see-saw battle with the Florida Panthers, posting four goals for the first time this season in a 4-3 win.
THE GOOD: Patric Hornqvist and Mike Fisher both have two goals now. Shea Weber got off the schneid with his first goal of the season. Craig Smith had a goal and an assist in a very strong performance against Florida. Filip Forsberg and Seth Jones both got their first NHL points in the win over Minnesota. The Preds have outshot four of their six opponents, a big change from last season when shot production was a nightly problem.
THE BAD: Pekka Rinne has yet to really look like his old two-time Vezina finalist self. This would be worrying if the team were off to a particularly poor start but isn’t a major concern yet since he’s still breaking in his surgically-repaired hip. None of the team’s free-agent signings have made much of an impact on the scoreboard yet, though Eric Nystrom has been surprisingly effective at creating chances and Viktor Stalberg only just came back from a shoulder injury two games ago.
THE OTHER: The teams that have beaten Nashville so far (St. Louis, Colorado, Toronto) have a combined record 16-2-0. The teams the Preds have beaten (Minnesota, NY Islanders, Florida) are a combined 7-9-4.