In hindsight, it was all a little too perfect. When NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly held up the Colorado Avalanche’s logo at the NHL draft lottery in April, revealing that the team had won the coveted top pick, the gloriously scripted implications were clear. With first dibs in the stacked 2013 entry draft, the Avalanche could select Seth Jones, a rangy American defenseman who had fallen in love with hockey as the son of an NBA player living in Colorado during the Avs’ early glory years.
It was the era of Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic; the Avs were so highly regarded that when an aging Ray Bourque decided to leave Boston for a last-gasp attempt at the Stanley Cup, Colorado is where he went. Hockey reigned in Denver then, and there wasn’t a ton of competition: The Nuggets were in the midst of an abysmal decade-long drought, the Colorado Rockies had one postseason win in franchise history, and John Elway had recently retired (on top, at least).
So when Popeye Jones’s young sons announced they wanted to play hockey, it really wasn’t a surprise. Like many fathers would and have, Jones — who played one season for the Nuggets — sought counsel from a dude at the office who seemed pretty in-the-know. He ran into Sakic in the weight room of the Pepsi Center and asked for his advice.
“He looked at me all the way up and into my eyes,” Jones the Elder, who stands at 6-foot-8, told the Associated Press. “He saw how big I was. He said, ‘He’s going to be huge. Make sure he knows how to skate.’” Jones signed up his sons for figure-skating lessons. The following season, 6-year-old Seth was in the stands when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in seven games.1
Now, 12 years later, Sakic was in the team’s front office and Roy was the new coach. And Popeye’s middle boy had grown up to become one of the most highly rated prospects in North America.
In January, with his mother, Amy,2 loudly and proudly cheering in the stands, Jones — the youngest player on the roster — helped lead the U.S. under-20 team to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia.3 In May, his junior team made it to the Memorial Cup final, losing 6-4 to a team powered by two other surefire NHL lottery picks, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. In June, all three of them (as well as Donovan McNabb’s nephew by marriage Darnell Nurse) were paraded around before Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final. NHL players, coaches, and even Scotty Bowman shook their hands and wished them luck.
A few weeks later, the Colorado Avalanche made their first pick in the NHL draft, and it wasn’t Seth Jones.
“It definitely sounded too good to be true,” said Jones, who ultimately fell to the Nashville Predators at the no. 4 pick. “And it turned out that way.”
It may not have been the perfect ending — but it’s already making for quite a start. When I went to Nashville last week to see a pair of preseason games, I asked one local writer what story lines had been dominating since camp began. He cut me off before I could even finish my question, like Dr. Evil saying “Zzzip it.”
When the Predators open their season tonight against the St. Louis Blues, Jones is expected to be in the lineup. He’ll also be celebrating his 19th birthday. And he’ll immediately become one of the more closely followed players in the league. The combination of his lineage and his draft-day disappointment makes for an interesting story on its own. But when you hear the way the Predators rave about him, like when Nashville coach Barry Trotz asserts outright that he’ll be “here for good,” it makes you want to see it for yourself.
Oh, and by the way: the Predators’ second game of the season, on Friday night? It’s against the Colorado Avalanche.
I think it might be a blessing in disguise that Seth went fourth,” said Trotz last week. “Not only for us, but for him. I mean, he’s a motivated guy, and I think at the end of the day he wants to say, ‘Ya know, the teams in front had a chance to take me and they didn’t. And I’m going to make sure that everybody knows I’m a good hockey player.’”
Newly hired Predators assistant coach Phil Housley, a former high-octane NHL defenseman who coached Jones on the winning World Juniors team, agreed.4 “Certainly he’s got a little thorn in his side because of it,” he said. “Which is good.”
In the days leading up to the draft, the Colorado Avalanche made it known that they would probably select a forward. When they opted for MacKinnon — a kid who is often compared to Sidney Crosby, because they both share a small Nova Scotia hometown and a big package of skills — it spoiled the happy narratives surrounding Jones and his childhood favorite team. But it really wasn’t a huge shock to anyone; there were and are plenty of folks who felt MacKinnon is the better prospect. (And, actually, MacKinnon grew up an Avalanche fan himself.)
But when the Florida Panthers chose Finnish center Aleksander Barkov with the second pick, murmurs of legitimate surprise rippled through the Prudential Center in Newark.5 Picking third, the Tampa Bay Lightning took Drouin. They loved the small playmaker, whom they had planned to draft all along — they had just assumed they’d be getting him behind Jones and MacKinnon, or MacKinnon and Jones.
When Jones’s name was finally called by the Nashville Predators at no. 4, it was hard for him to disguise his disappointment. He described himself as “extremely happy,” but it wasn’t written on his face.
“Yeah, well, I’m competitive,” he admitted to the press corps shortly after his selection. “I have a competitive nature and I get that from my parents. Yeah … you definitely want to prove them wrong, and you definitely want to show them why they should have picked you. That’s not my only goal next year, but it’s definitely on my list.”
The Predators were delighted.
“This is the first time we’ve ever gotten the top player on our list,” said a downright giddy David Poile, the Nashville general manager. “I wish we had the no. 1 pick so then I wouldn’t have to say, ‘I can’t believe the player was there!’ We had Seth Jones rated no. 1.”
Trotz remembered giving the same message to his newest charge when they first met. “After he was drafted, I was at the table, and I just said, ‘You know, son, we’re really thrilled to have you. I know the list, and they had you no. 1, and to get our no. 1 player — we’re just thrilled to death. And I know you’re going to outshine some of those other guys.’”
It’s hard to read too much into the NHL preseason. Teams are trying to evaluate and cycle through players more so than they are trying to win. (When the Predators played the New York Islanders on September 22, a number of their best guys weren’t even in the lineup, including Shea Weber, the team’s captain and one of the top two or three defensemen in the league.) Still, Jones’s preseason was a pleasant surprise even to the team that drafted him.
Everyone had the same things to say; the word “poise” was thrown around so much I found myself fretting that he might wind up the next Mark Sanchez. Players and coaches alike mentioned his rare combination of size and finesse.
Said Predators forward Rich Clune: “He’s a big kid, but he’s got really slick hands and he holds on to the puck well.”
And Weber: “Obviously, the first thing you notice is his size, and his skating, because he moves so well out there and covers so much ice.”
And goalie Pekka Rinne: “He’s a big guy. Skates well, has good hands and good puck-moving abilities. It was easy to play with him and I think we communicated really well on the ice right away.”
Against the Islanders, Jones saw time at even strength, on the power play, and shorthanded. His 23:26 was the highest time-on-ice of any player save for Islanders defenseman Thomas Hickey.
He recorded a shot on goal, made crisp breakout passes, curled and twirled his way out of trouble in the corners, and, late in the game, when his partner Roman Josi broke his stick on a shot attempt, found himself on the unfortunate end of a 3-on-1. Jones sprawled his 6-foot-4 body across the ice — and while the Islanders managed to slide a pass beneath him, their timing was disrupted just enough for the scoring chance to peter out. The Predators won the game, 2-0.
“Jonesy was really good,” Trotz said afterward. “He’s got really good escapability and poise and patience for a young man — and he skates so well for such a big man. Yeah, he was a force today. I thought he was fantastic.”
Here’s the elephant in the room: Regardless of how highly touted and POISED! Jones may be, the big and bruising NHL is an unforgiving place for teenage defensemen. Most teams handle this by holding the players back. Analysis done by Broad Street Hockey identified 44 blueliners who were top-10 draft picks between 2000 and 2010. Of them, only seven played their rookie seasons immediately after being drafted; most got two years of seasoning in the juniors or minors before they were ready for NHL play.6 That included Ryan Suter, who was one of the Predators’ top defensive stars before leaving as a free agent to sign with the Minnesota Wild last summer.
“In general, it usually takes a defenseman until he’s 25 to really understand the game,” said Housley. “But I think Seth is really understanding all the concepts. He’s been in a lot of great situations — power play, penalty kill, and even strength — so it’s really great to see him adjusting and keep improving … I think he’s checked off all the lists that we were wondering how he was going to react to.”
Dirk Hoag of On the Forecheck recently identified 18 players since the post-lockout 2005-06 season who saw time in more than 10 NHL games in their teenage rookie years. The list includes some of the league’s most promising talent: recent Stanley Cup workhorse Drew Doughty, steady Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and last season’s Calder Trophy candidate7 Jonas Brodin.
But there are also cautionary tales. The Avalanche’s Erik Johnson was St. Louis’s first overall pick in 2006,8 but has yet to live up to the massive expectations that go along with the top slot. (It doesn’t help in hindsight that he was taken in lieu of players like Phil Kessel and Jonathan Toews.) To be fair, a freak accident during training camp in 2008 has plenty to do with that. Johnson got his foot caught between a golf cart gas pedal and the brake, tearing his ACL and MCL and missing what would have been his sophomore season. Still, there’s a pervasive feeling that he may have been rushed into things too soon.
Another young defenseman, Cam Fowler, remains a fascinating case. Like Jones, his stock fell on draft day; he was projected to go in the top three but dropped to Anaheim at no. 12. Now just 21 years old, he’s already had three seasons in the league — which happens to be the length of the entry-level contract all drafted players sign. In the salary-cap environment of the NHL, there are few things more highly prized than a productive player on an ELC. So the decision of whether to give a top prospect a head start must be balanced with the reality that you may come to regret burning a still relatively affordable contract a year too soon. Fowler had a cap hit of $1.4 million in his first three seasons; going forward, he’ll make about three times that.
“It was tough to sit there while [the draft] was happening,” Fowler told ESPN in 2011. “But I think Anaheim, out of any team, gave me the best chance to succeed and needed my skill set the most. It’s important when the team is as happy to get you as you are to be drafted by them.”
The Nashville Predators are notoriously methodical about player development, particularly on defense. It’s assumed that would-be Predators will first spend significant time with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals. In the franchise’s history, only one player, Scott Hartnell, made the roster in his draft year.
Until now. As if that pressure weren’t enough, Jones will also face an additional challenge: playing on his non-dominant side. With a glut of right-handed defensemen on the team, the Predators asked a few of the younger players to work on transitioning to the left during the summer and the preseason. Jones was one. (Although it looks like he might not play on that side tonight.) “I told Ryan [Ellis] and Seth both that if they want to move up in the lineup, a lot of times you might have to do it on the left side,” Trotz said. “I think it’s easier to get them to do it at a young age. Plus, it helps their mobility, it helps their hands and all that. I did that rather than having, as I call them, the old dogs try to change.”
Everyone seems high on Jones right now, but fans are fickle. If Nashville’s offensive struggles from last season persist, many will wonder loudly why the Predators didn’t draft a scoring forward. (The team hopes that young Filip Forsberg, selected 11th overall by the Capitals in 2012 and traded to the Preds last season, will make an impact in that realm.) If Jones makes mistakes — when Jones makes mistakes — some will question whether he’s really ready for the NHL; others will go a step further and unfairly declare him an insta-bust. That’s the curse of being a lottery player, whether you’re no. 4 or no. 1.
And it doesn’t help lessen expectations that, as a young and highly marketable American who grew up in nontraditional hockey markets, Jones has become a bit of an ongoing meme among the red-white-and-blue-blooded set. (Guilty!) Recently the Predators made a stop at the Naval Academy, and a photo of a smartly dressed Jones posing alongside a midshipman triggered the usual Twitter talk about bald eagles9 and the supremacy of our great nation. “This kid was immediately promoted to Fleet Admiral,” wrote Nashville writer J.R. Lind.
It’s all in good fun, but there’s a genuine underlying message there: This is the player hockey fans — particularly those in the U.S. — have been hearing about for years now, the one who was supposed to be drafted first overall, the one projected to be a “generational talent” and a someday leader of Team USA.10 We want to believe that we’re getting in on the ground floor of a player’s ascending career, that we will look back and remember when he was just a baby-faced kid telling Esquire that the best advice he’s ever gotten is “Firm handshake, eye contact.”
On Wednesday night, MacKinnon recorded two assists in his debut for the Colorado Avalanche, the first one in particular an absolute beauty, and in the game’s final minute he was the target of an ugly-looking hit by Anaheim’s Ben Lovejoy that caused Patrick Roy to completely lose his mind. Suddenly Colorado’s no. 1 selection was looking pretty great.11
Typically, it takes a little bit of time for two top prospects to face each other on the ice in the NHL. But when the Predators travel to Denver on Friday, fans will likely be treated to a matchup between these two teenagers in the very first week of the NHL season. The last time Jones and MacKinnon competed head-to-head, it was in that Memorial Cup final back in May. Jones scored a goal in that game — while MacKinnon earned a hat trick and two assists and was named MVP. It may not be a perfect comparison, but no doubt the performance helped elevate him, and not Jones, to no. 1.
“I am extremely glad it’s over,” said Jones at the draft. “This has been a long time coming, and it seems like the last couple years have just dragged on and dragged on.”
We’re all extremely glad it’s over. The fun part’s only getting started.