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The injury bug has hit the Phoenix Coyotes early and hard. In the third game of the season, defenseman Keith Ballard blocked a shot and broke a bone in his hand. During the same road trip, Steven Reinprecht, who had been centering the Coyotes top line, broke his collarbone during a game in Nashville. Ten days later, captain Shane Doan left the ice in Calgary with due to a back injury. Along with other bumps and bruises, the Coyotes coaching staff has been forced to look within their system to replace those frontline players.
Enter Matt Jones and Don MacLean.
Both men have had spent time over their careers in the American Hockey League and the National Hockey League and now they are hoping this is their year to make it in the NHL.
Jones, a 6-foot, 215-pound defenseman, was called up by the Coyotes on five different occasions last season and played in 15 games throughout the course of the year. Jones showed promise and skill and had hoped he would receive the call for the last time and remain in Phoenix and a part of the NHL, but that didn't happen last year.
"I got called up five different times so it was a very interesting year," said Jones. "I just try to take it all in while I'm here. I just try and get better every day, work as hard as I can every day and do my job every time they put me on the ice."
MacLean on the other hand, played his first NHL game in the 1997-98 season with the Los Angeles Kings. Like Jones, MacLean has been up and down through his career, but his opportunities have seemed to take place once every two years. MacLean has played in parts of four seasons with four different NHL clubs: the Kings, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Detroit Red Wings. In 32 career games, MacLean has recorded seven goals and four assists, but has never had the chance to play a full season in the NHL.
This year as training camp came to a close, Jones, 23, was again assigned to the San Antonio Rampage in the AHL, but he wasn't discouraged. He kept working hard, knowing his time would come.
"It's a great feeling every time you do get called up, and every time you do get an opportunity to play in the NHL it's an honor," said Jones. "It was interesting. Whenever I got sent down I never saw it as a bad thing. I go back down and keep giving them reasons to keep calling me back up."
And he was right. His phone rang on October 25 with the news that he was to pack his bags and hop on the next flight to Phoenix. This time, Jones was poised to make the most of this opportunity. He scored the first goal of his NHL career in his second game this season, on October 28 against the New York Rangers, with a shot from the point to give the Coyotes a 1-0 lead.
"It was very cool," Jones said. "It was bittersweet because we ended up losing the game, and the most important thing is that we win."
MacLean was called up to the Coyotes the same day as Jones, but he is hoping to draw on his past experiences this time.
Last season with the Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL) he scored 56 goals, added 32 assists and was named MVP of the league. It was a season of honors and a career highs for 29-year-old MacLean.
"It was great," said MacLean. "Something individual, it's nice to be recognized by the media and also it's voted on by your peers so that's something good. It's nice to know that when you put a lot of hard work into something that you get the recognition."
MacLean, at 6'3" 215-pounds, has put up solid numbers in the AHL for years. Now that he's wearing a Coyotes jersey this early in the season, he hopes that his scoring touch will continue in Phoenix.
"I think I can score (in the NHL)," said MacLean. "I've never been able to play any amount of games together. I've come up for two or three games here or there. I've always gotten a goal, or an assist or something. Hopefully I can stick around long enough to get used to the pace and get used to the guys and get into a grove. I think given regular ice time and some (power plays) I can help out offensively."
When MacLean heard he was on his way up to Phoenix, he was thrilled to be called up so early in the season. His previous stints in the NHL have tended to come late in the season allowing him only few games to prove himself. This time he knows that if he plays well, he could remain in the desert for a while.
"I was very happy," said MacLean. "This was my first call-up this early in the season. My previous three or four call-ups have been the last three games of the season. This gives me a little bit of hope that if I can play well and work hard and do what they ask of me, maybe I can still salvage an NHL career the next few years.
"I think the older I get, the more consistent I get. I think earlier (in my career) I was more relying on my talent, which was fine in the American league, but never cut it up here. I try to pay attention to what the coach tells me to do and exercise that in a game. I'm not the fastest skater out there, but I have a knack of being in the right place at the right time. I'm a bigger guy so I can work (well) in the corners."
Just like Jones, MacLean contributed as soon as he was called up. In his first game with the Coyotes, MacLean scored a goal and an assist, helping to put an end to a four-game skid.
"It was very nice," said MacLean. "I had a lot of family and friends watching the game. When you look in the standings and you see Phoenix has been struggling and then to be able to help with a six-goal output and to get the first goal in the first game it's a good feeling."
For Jones, the NHL is still somewhat new. Drafted by the Coyotes in the third round, (80th overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, he played four seasons at the University of North Dakota, a powerhouse for NCAA hockey. He led his team to the Frozen Four championship game in his senior year, but the team came up short, losing to the University of Denver 4-1.
"It was a great four years," said Jones. "They have a great program there, and I thought I improved a lot as a player and grew a lot as a person as well."
Jones grew up in Downers Grove, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. As a child, his favorite hockey team was the Blackhawks and he was a huge fan of players like Chris Chelios and current teammate Jeremy Roenick.
"I remember going the Blackhawks game when I was in fifth grade," Jones said. "It's crazy. I talk to my friends back home and they are like 'you're playing with Jeremy Roenick!' We grew up watching him and the Blackhawks, it's a pretty cool experience."
Jones continues to experience personal thrills as he has been paired up most of the time with one of the league's top defensemen, Ed Jovanovski.
"It's pretty easy to play with him," Jones said. "You give him the puck and it's out of the zone or he's making a play with it. It makes everything a lot easier because you are playing with such a great player who has played for so long. I grew up watching him so it's definitely very cool, I've learned a lot from him."
However, even Jones he admits that he sometimes he gets a little star struck.
"Every night we are playing against somebody on some team that you grew up watching, so it's pretty cool," he said. "(I) grew up watching (all) these guys. You have to pinch your self every once in a while."
Now with the opportunity in front of them and armed with the skill and ability to merit a shot at the NHL, Matt Jones and Don MacLean are no longer satisfied with seeing the NHL. Together, they are determined to solidify their own careers and in the process, establish the Coyotes as one of the toughest teams to face in the league.