Blair Jones' first taste of the NHL was short, yet sweet. Jones posted two assists and averaged 8:47 of ice time through six games while playing mostly on the Tampa Bay Lightning's third line.
Those stats seem pretty impressive considering Jones is a 20-year-old who is less than a year removed from Canadian junior hockey.
Jones, who got his first call to the Lightning on November 20, was given a chance to make his NHL debut after a solid start with Tampa Bay's American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. Scoring 12 points (four goals, eight assists) through the season's first 17 games, Jones appeared to adjust well to the AHL in his first professional season.
A native of Central Butte, Saskatchewan, Jones completed his major junior hockey career with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League. Showing consistent improvement through his four years at the junior level, Jones finished as the third highest scorer on Moose Jaw in his final season.
Through 72 games with the Warriors Jones had 85 points including 35 goals. Of those 35 goals, 14 were scored on the power play, the most on the team. Jones' 50 assists were second best on the team.
The steady improvement and strong point production were precisely what the Lightning were hoping to see when they drafted Jones in 2005.
"The deciding factor in drafting him, and in signing him, was the fact that Blair gets better as the season goes on," Lightning Head Scout Jake Goertzen said. "He starts out reasonably well and just gets better and better. He thrives on post-season play and the bigger the challenge, the better he responds, and that's something that we look for in all our players - it's a very good quality to have."
That characteristic of being able to step up to the challenge appeared to serve Jones well in his NHL debut. In only his second game Jones picked up his first NHL point with an assist on a Ryan Craig goal against the Florida Panthers. Head Coach John Tortorella praised the young forward for his gritty play and rewarded him with extra ice time.
While it has become rare for a young forward to come straight out of juniors to play in the NHL, Jones showed that he could jump into the Lightning's lineup and compete in the faster environment.
"I think obviously it's a little faster, but I think that the ability and skill level of the players makes it a little easier, so playing has been a pretty smooth transition," Jones said. "For the most part it's gone pretty well. The guys are all pretty helpful and the coaching staff, they're obviously here to help, so I think it's gone more smoothly than I may have anticipated."
"He didn't look out of place at all and he's only 20 years old," Goertzen said. "He's actually been thrown into the fire a little bit because the season is a third over and the pace is quite a bit quicker. The players are obviously better and everything, so yeah, I think that's really helped him, and his maturity level is very good."
That maturity is likely one of the reasons Jones earned the call-up so early in his career. Despite his youth, he fit into the Tampa Bay lineup easily and brought his strong work ethic to each game.
Even so, there is a hint of awe that can be heard in Jones' voice when discussing his first time playing at the NHL level. After a tough loss in Buffalo during his debut, Jones participated in a three-game winning streak that included a dramatic come-from-behind overtime win against the Atlanta Thrashers. Experiences like that help ease the touch of nervousness that the young man might feel going into games.
"I don't play as much as I did maybe in Springfield, but I just try to make the most of when I'm out there and work hard to get chances for this team," Jones said. "I think our game against Atlanta was pretty exciting, when we scored late and won in overtime. The guys were pretty pumped up over that one."
Getting experiences such as those under his belt are likely to help Jones develop as a hockey player and give him motivation to return to the NHL level.
Although his first time spent in Tampa was short, it appears as though Jones left a positive impression on the Lightning organization.
"I think our team is very pleased with how he's contributed when he's been asked to," Goertzen said. "Nobody gets a free ride with John Tortorella, so obviously Blair's got some minutes and he's getting them because he's earned them. He's worked very hard and he's just putting his nose to the grindstone and doing what the coaches want him to do."
"I think it makes it a bit more comfortable," Jones said of his points and the praise he received. "I think every day I'm a little nervous still, but I'm starting just to be a little more comfortable out on the ice and that always helps."
Now that he's had the opportunity to see the differences between the minor and NHL levels of hockey, Jones can continue to work on his game and hone his skills as he grows in the Lightning's minor league system. Using his maturity and work ethic to his advantage, Jones should continue the yearly improvement he has shown throughout his career.
For a forward who was playing for a major junior team less than a year ago, it seems fair to say Jones has made a great first impression.