One of the big battles when training camp begins next month will be for roles on the bottom two forward lines.
Blair Jones should be right in the middle of it.
Jones finished his three-year, entry-level contract with a career-best 20 goals for Norfolk last season before re-signing with a one-year deal last month. Now, it is time to move forward.
“The past three years I’ve worked a lot on my game,” said Jones, 23, who now spends summers in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “The way things are looking, there are spots open. I’m ready to come in and do whatever it takes.”
Jones arrived from juniors with scoring credentials, producing 85 points in the regular season and 22 in 21 Western Hockey League playoff games in 2005-06. In the minors, Jones was also put in an offensive role most of the time.
But his full-time entry into the NHL will most likely depend more on what the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder does on the other end of the ice.
“What he needs to do is try to be the best two-way player he can be,” Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton said. “He skates well enough and he is strong enough.”
Jones, who played both right wing and his natural center position last season, accepts that challenge.
Young players want to show they can score goals, especially when they are put in that role. Finding the back of the net, while becoming a very dependable defensive player at a higher level, is often the toughest transition for forwards. Jones admits it was a difficult line to straddle in the minors and he concentrated on that aspect of the game more last season.
“I think I gained a lot of experience last year and made strides,” Jones said. “I was working on things, in games and practices that I needed to do to make it in the NHL.”
Jones played the first half of the season as a right wing. When he moved to center, his offensive output increased. He received more ice time, the team played better, and Jones used his hard shot at the point on the power play.
When the ice had been cleared, Jones set pro career highs in goals (20), assists (34), points (54) and penalty minutes (61). He set a new franchise record with 271 shots on goal, which was third in the American Hockey League.
“Coach [Darren] Rumble was always on me to shoot the puck more,” Jones said. “So I did it as much as I could.”
Jones also finished the season without missing a game.
“I’ve always liked to think I’m a durable player,” Jones said. “Through my junior career I didn’t miss many games due to injury. You are never 100 percent healthy, but I take pride in being able to play every night.”
Jones didn’t sit out many days when he was a young kid growing up in Craik, Saskatchewan – population under 500. He and his friends spent hours and hours at the local rink, which was always open.
When he was 16, Jones moved on to Red Deer of the WHL where he played with current Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Midway through his third season with the Rebels, he was traded to Moose Jaw.
Jones recorded 32 points in 34 games, including playoffs, the rest of the season and was drafted in the fourth round by the Lightning. Jones played on a line with current Chicago Blackhawks forward Troy Brouwer and Atlanta Thrashers’ property Riley Holzapfel. Flames forward Dustin Boyd and others who were drafted also played for the Warriors.
“When I was traded it was a fresh start for me,” Jones said. “I grew up watching Moose Jaw games, was comfortable with the city and I liked playing in that rink. We had a great group of guys, who all motivated ourselves.”
Moose Jaw lost in the WHL finals to Vancouver in 2006, before Jones headed to Springfield, Massachusetts to start his professional career in the AHL with the Falcons – then the Lightning affiliate.
Jones was called up to Tampa his first season and did not look out of place, contributing a goal and two assists. His goal came against former Lightning goalie Sean Burke and the Los Angeles Kings, February 6, 2007.
“It was a learning experience, being around NHL players and seeing their approach, how they prepared, what it took,” Jones said. “But I was only 20, and not as mature as I am now. Maybe I didn’t take all that I could have away from it.”
Jones played four games for the Lightning in 2007-08 and 75 with Norfolk, compiling 14 goals and 28 assists.
With all the new players brought into camp before last season, Jones said he saw the handwriting on the wall. Making the team was a long shot and, for the first time in his three seasons, he did not get a call up.
“It was frustrating, but you can’t let things bother you,” Jones said. “You just have to keep working.”
Now he has a clear shot. He said the organization has been good to him. The goal is now to get a foot in the door and then close it behind him.
“He knows the game, has NHL size and the physical ability,” Lightning Assistant GM Tom Kurvers said. “We don’t have every hole plugged. There’s room for guys to surprise us in camp and he could be one of those. There are a lot of guys that have come into camp in his position and become good NHL players.”
Jones said he feels stronger and faster than ever.
“I worked very hard in the off season,” Jones said. “I want to make the best of this chance.”