When the United States went about picking its team for the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship, there was a surprise name in the middle of the discussion. It was a big, strong, skilled 17-year-old defenseman a year away from NHL Draft consideration.
A year later, that same player now will be no surprise addition to the U.S. WJC team. Seth Jones, 18, will be expected to play a major role as the United States looks to improve on its seventh-place finish in Alberta.
Jones, expected to be one of the top two players picked at the 2013 NHL Draft, was one of 27 players invited by USA Hockey to its selection camp, to be held Dec 16-18 at the New York Rangers' training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y.
Barring injury, Jones has a spot on the team, likely as a top-pair defenseman who will see lots of ice time in all situations.
However, that was the scenario he was in last year, and that didn't work out too well.
"He would have been a key component for our team if not for the injury," Team USA general manager Jim Johansson said. "Seth should have been in the tournament last year."
Watch WJC on NHL Network-US
Instead of potentially starring on the blue line at the WJC, Jones sustained a shoulder injury in Team USA's final exhibition game, when he was hit hard into the boards during a game against Russia. The injury sidelined him for five weeks, ending any hopes of his making the World Junior team. Instead, he watched the tournament at home in Texas with his family.
"Sitting home, you have a million scenarios running through your head," Jones told NHL.com. "If that was you or if you were on the team, this and this could have happened or this would have been different. But I wasn't. I had to sit and watch and hope for the best."
Jones' best could make him one of the best defenseman in the tournament. Jones has all-round puck skills that have NHL scouts eagerly anticipating the draft in June. In his first season in the Western Hockey League, Jones has 20 points and a plus-22 rating in 26 games. NHL Central Scouting has him ranked as the No. 1 skater in the WHL in its preliminary rankings of players for this year's draft.
"He's a special player, no doubt," Team USA coach Phil Housley said. "He's built for today's game. He's big, strong athletic, he skates well, makes the first pass out of the zone very crisp. Defensively, positionally, he's got a great stick. He uses his size well. His skating is improved over the years and he's able to jump into the play offensively. He's the full package."
Unlike last year, when Jones was able to fly under the radar a bit as the youngest player competing for a spot on the team, he's well-entrenched in the spotlight now. However, whether he's fighting for a spot or almost certainly has one reserved for him, Jones said his mindset won't change.
"It's not a different mindset this year," he said. "I'm going into training camp and I'm going to be the best I can be. I'm not going to change my game or do anything different because I have a better chance of making the team this year. I'm still going to prove to the coaching staff that I deserve to be on the team."
He's more than willing to play whatever role the coaching staff might have for him.
"I believe that if I work my hardest, I can play in any situation given," Jones said. "That's up to the coaching staff if they want me to be a shut-down defenseman or play power play. That's not in my hands to decide. I know they're going to make the best decision for the team and whatever that decision is I'll make sure the job gets done."
After last year's disappointment, he's just looking forward to the opportunity to be a part of the team that goes to Ufa, Russia.
"There's definitely a motivation for me," he said. "This is one of the biggest underage tournaments in the world and to play at this tournament would be awesome for me. I'm really looking forward to it."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK