The Columbus Blue Jackets saw all they needed to see from defenseman Seth Jones in half a season to justify a long-term investment. His sample production also gives him serious fantasy breakout potential for next season.
The Blue Jackets signed Jones, who had been acquired in a trade with the Nashville Predators on Jan. 6, to a six-year contract Wednesday. Jones saw significantly better usage and production in 41 games with the Blue Jackets following the trade, with his totals in points (20, T-26th), power-play points (nine, T-22nd) and shots on goal (83, T-24th) putting him in the thick of the League's fantasy-relevant defensemen in the span.
For a full season, that rate of production would have Jones in even better company. Only 16 players at his position finished with at least 40 points, 18 power-play points and 166 shots on goal in 2015-16.
It remains to be seen where Jones will go on average in fantasy drafts this fall, but there's a strong chance he'll be available outside the top 150 picks. He was drafted on average No. 166 for the 2015-16 season and finished 61st among defensemen in Yahoo's performance-based rankings. That rank is based on the entire season, so it doesn't properly indicate how productive Jones was following the trade.
For Jones, 2015-16 was a tale of two half-seasons.
He averaged nearly five minutes more per game with the Blue Jackets (24:27) than he did in 40 games with the Predators (19:38). He saw a slight uptick in power-play ice time per game (2:40 with the Blue Jackets, 2:24 with the Predators). But having much more first-unit usage was the difference; he more than doubled his power-play point output with the Predators (four) as a member of the Blue Jackets (nine).
The opportunity with the Blue Jackets was the first time Jones was put into a top-pair role; Jones played mostly a secondary role with the Predators behind Roman Josi and Shea Weber. He's gone from 25 points as a rookie in 2013-14 to 27 points last season to 31 points in 2015-16. Fantasy owners can bank on that continuing next season.
Jones promises to see time alongside the Blue Jackets' blossoming offense for years to come. They had two 30-goal scorers this season in forwards Brandon Saad (31) and Boone Jenner (30) with forward Cam Atkinson (27 goals) close behind. Saad, 23, and Atkinson, 27, each set NHL career highs with 53 points this season, and Jenner, 23, shattered his prior best with 49 points.
The Blue Jackets also reportedly signed versatile forward Pierre-Luc Dubois, the No. 3 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, to an entry-level contract Wednesday, adding depth to their projected top-nine equation for the future. Brandon Dubinsky and Alexander Wennberg likely will enter next season as their top two centers. But Dubois, a natural left wing, exceled at center in the second half of the season.
The early returns and bright future in Columbus indicate Jones should be viewed as a borderline top-30 fantasy defenseman entering next season with a clear path to finishing among the top 20 if he translates his production through a full season. And how about another vote of confidence: Jones has played 240 of a possible 246 career regular-season games, so durability has been on his side.