NEWARK, N.J. -- When Nashville Predators general manager David Poile found out he had the fourth pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, he was excited because he felt there were four great players in this class.
When it came time to make his pick Sunday at Prudential Center, Poile was ecstatic.
Three players were selected before it was Poile's turn, but he still ended up with the player who was No. 1 on Nashville's draft board, and defenseman Seth Jones landing with the Predators was the first surprising twist of draft day.
"I wish I wouldn't have to say, 'I can't believe the player was there,' but we had Seth Jones rated No. 1. We think he is just a terrific player," Poile said. "This is a franchise-type player. ... Seth Jones to us has been the best player, but we'll see. We all know how it goes with the draft and we won't know for several years, but this feels real good."
Jones was the consensus top-ranked player in this draft class after leading the United States to a gold medal at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship in January, and, until recently, was considered a co-contender for the No. 1 spot with Halifax Mooseheads center Nathan MacKinnon.
The new management group of the Colorado Avalanche, led by Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy, made its intention to select MacKinnon clear in the days leading up to the draft, but when the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning passed on Jones for forwards, it reset how the top of this class will be remembered.
Jones seemed like a natural fit in Colorado, having spent time there in his youth when his father, Popeye Jones, played for the Nuggets in the NBA. After the Avalanche passed on Jones for a potential franchise center, the Panthers did the same by selecting Finland native Aleksander Barkov.
Florida general manager Dale Tallon said the decision wasn't final until a second sit-down with Barkov, which occurred the day before the draft.
During a press conference to announce Dan Bylsma of the Pittsburgh Penguins as coach for the United States' entry in the 2014 Winter Olympics, Poile, the U.S. general manager, predicted on Saturday morning Tallon would draft Jones. He stood at a podium and looked right at Tallon sitting off to his left and said he expected an American player (Jones, obviously) to be selected in the top two picks Sunday.
"I think it changed a little bit. It goes back to when the draft lottery took place," Poile said. "I thought 99 percent sure when Colorado won the lottery and Seth Jones had grown up there and played some youth hockey there. That made perfect, perfect sense. Then there was the Memorial Cup. Then there was Patrick Roy hired, who obviously knows MacKinnon better, or as well as anyone on their staff, and MacKinnon was fabulous at the Memorial Cup. That's where things changed, and they were never the same."
Barkov could pair with Nick Bjugstad to give the Panthers two centers nearly 13 feet tall combined and flush with skill and hockey sense to go with the size. Though Tallon is high on his collection of young defensemen, the reality is Florida has incredible depth in its system.
Bjugstad and Barkov could be a devastating one-two punch at center, but if the Panthers don't have a true No. 1 defenseman in this lot, they might wish Jones was the pick.
"It was a tough decision, but we needed to be strong up the middle," Tallon said. "I like big, strong centermen who are smart playmakers, and we went back and forth a few days on this one. We felt that he was the most talented guy with size and he's a left-handed shot. That's something we didn't have in our system.
"We had a lot of good dialogue. Our staff really did a nice job of presenting their thoughts and ideas on who they thought we should take with the second pick. It came out Barkov and we're happy it is."
Tampa Bay was up next, and the Lightning certainly had multiple needs. They could have drafted Jones and paired him with Victor Hedman, but general manager Steve Yzerman went with slick-skilled wing Jonathan Drouin instead.
Drouin, MacKinnon's teammate in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, could fit into Tampa Bay's top six forwards immediately, replacing Vincent Lecavalier, who was announced as a compliance buyout earlier this week.
"Well, every team has their own list and we all look for different things," Yzerman said. "What we like in Jonathan Drouin is we really like his hockey sense, we really like his competitiveness, his skill level, his skating. We like everything about his game. We really like Seth Jones too. There's not much we don't like about him, but when you're rating players you've got to rate somebody 1, somebody 2, somebody 3, and we had Jonathan right ahead of Seth."
That left Jones for Poile and the Predators.
Nashville has been a strong defensive club for years, but a lack of dynamic forwards has alternated between a weakness and a major problem.
The Predators added a young, potentially dynamic forward before the NHL Trade Deadline in 2013 by trading for Filip Forsberg, but the cost was veteran wing Martin Erat. Had Barkov or Drouin been the last man standing among the top four, Poile would have gladly scooped him up and likely inserted him into the lineup on one of the top two lines.
"I wish I wouldn't have to say, 'I can't believe the player was there,' but we had Seth Jones rated No. 1. We think he is just a terrific player. This is a franchise-type player. ... Seth Jones to us has been the best player, but we'll see. We all know how it goes with the draft and we won't know for several years, but this feels real good."
-- Nashville GM David Poile
Jones proved to be an unexpected gift, and a week shy of 12 months after losing Ryan Suter to free agency, Poile may have landed his long-term replacement.
"I think potentially that is absolutely right," Poile said. "[Jones] is obviously that type of defenseman, so time will tell. We're talking about an 18-year-old so it is going to take time. The obvious thing is he's a big kid and well-built (6-foot-4, 205 pounds). We're going to give him every chance to make our team coming out of training camp. We've been looking for bigger players, so it feels pretty good right now."
Jones might have been disappointed about not going No. 1 or No. 2, but he might have ended up in a wonderful situation with Nashville. His father was born about 125 miles west of there and family members are in the area.
The Predators recently hired Phil Housley as an assistant coach. Housley was the coach of the United States team at the WJC for which Jones starred. Then there is the team's depth and talent on defense. Jones will not have to play 25 minutes a night for the Predators unless he earns it.
It might not be long before he does.
"I think I can be a solid defenseman, produce a little bit offensively as well," Jones said. "I know people say it takes time for defensemen to really grow in the League, a couple years at least, so hopefully I can prove that theory wrong."
Time will tell whether the three teams who passed on Jones end up regretting it. Jones was No. 1 in January, and in recent NHL draft history, when there is a consensus top-ranked player five months before the event, he normally ends up being the first player on stage on the big day.
MacKinnon, Barkov and Drouin could end up being outstanding players. How each of them ended up ahead of Jones ended up being the biggest early story of the 2013 draft.
"Yeah, well, I'm competitive," Jones said. "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."