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Predators rookie Jones proves a quick study

by John Manasso /

NASHVILLE -- Seth Jones' adjustment to the NHL didn't just begin when the Nashville Predators had their rookie development camp or when training camp started in early September.

It began during what normally would be considered the dead time of the offseason at a rink in his native Dallas. Predators coach Barry Trotz told Jones, the No. 4 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, that he wanted the right-handed shot to work on playing the left side.

Jones, the diligent pupil, performed his homework with his skills coach Jordan French, who works for Matt Barnaby Hockey. When people around Jones talk about the value of his father, Ronald "Popeye" Jones, having played in the NBA, and of Seth Jones having grown up around professional athletes, this is the payoff.

With Jones, 19, attempting to make the jump directly from junior hockey to the NHL, the extra work he put in this summer is paying dividends. Predators top-pair defenseman Roman Josi sustained a concussion Friday, so entering Nashville's home opener Tuesday, Trotz wanted to play Jones on the top defense pair with captain Shea Weber, a right-side defenseman.

"It's a good thing I did because I am [playing the left side] now," Jones said. "It just requires more footwork, I think, in certain areas, especially when the puck's coming around the boards in the offensive zone and you have to use your backhand, which is maybe tough for a lot of guys and it is tough. It's tough for me and I had to work on it quite a bit.

"You need to be able get that puck on and off your stick quick on your backhand, which is tough. Regroups, you're not really facing the play as much as you would on your forehand. There are certain situations and aspects of the game, but it's not too bad."

Because Jones did his homework, the initial attempt proved successful. The Predators won for the first time this season, 3-2 against the Minnesota Wild, on Tuesday, and Jones and Weber matched up against the Wild's top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville. Nashville held that line without a goal at even strength, although Jones was called for high-sticking Koivu, which resulted in a power-play goal by Parise.

Much like Jones' transition from playing the right side on the third defensive pair with fellow rookie Mattias Ekholm to the left with Weber against the game's elite forwards, Jones' transition to the NHL has gone relatively smoothly. He had one assist in three games and is plus-1. Trotz talks about a calmness in Jones and it's evident in how he handles the puck, skates it out of his zone or chooses to pinch in the offensive zone.

For two straight games, Jones led the Predators in time on ice, and that's on a roster with Weber, a finalist for the Norris Trophy in 2011 and '12. Jones is so poised that it seems natural, but Trotz said it is learned.

"The poise comes probably from confidence," Trotz said. "Obviously, having the ability to do what you do and … he's got a lot of confidence and he's got a lot of ability for a 19-year kid who's 6-foot-5 and who can skate around the ice like he can is pretty good."

In Nashville's 15-year history, it has prided itself on developing its own talent. Mostly, with rare exceptions, it has done that by sending players to Milwaukee of the American Hockey League. Weber, a second-round pick, returned to the Western Hockey League to play two more years of junior hockey after he was drafted, appeared in 46 games in Milwaukee in 2005-06 and played his first full NHL season at age 21 in 2006-07. Ryan Suter, the No. 7 pick in 2003, played a year at the University of Wisconsin after his draft year and 63 games with Milwaukee before playing his first full NHL season in 2005-06.

"Obviously, I wasn't ready," Weber said of breaking into the League immediately after he was drafted. "Whatever the case, I went to Milwaukee. I thought it was really good. It was great for my development. I had great coaches down there in [current Winnipeg Jets coach] Claude Noel and [current Columbus Blue Jackets coach] Todd Richards and they really helped me along my development. …

"I can't even imagine what [Seth is] going through right now."

Weber said the biggest adjustment for Jones is adjusting to the size of players. Though the WHL has big players, it doesn't have as many as the NHL does, Weber said, and especially ones who are as fast as NHL players.

Jones said he realizes he has had to make quicker decisions and to keep his head up.

"The best thing you can do is get the puck and get rid of it as quick as you can," Jones said. "If you have your head up before you get the puck, you have a pretty good idea of what you're going to do with it when you get it. So I think that's the key. It definitely takes some time in this League as a defenseman to know how much time you have and those sorts of things."

Seth Jones
Defense - NSH
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 1
SOG: 6 | +/-: 1
Trotz said that in playing Jones on his off side, he has even less time to make those decisions. It's a lesson the coach, a defenseman at the junior level himself 30 years ago, said he is trying to impart on young defenseman Ryan Ellis, another former first-round pick. Trotz said when opposing forecheckers take good angles and close in on a defenseman with the puck on his off hand, the defenseman loses about one-third of the ice as an option, which necessitates the quicker decisions.

However, Trotz said Jones' size gives him an advantage.

"I mean, he can pull it and pop it around people," Trotz said.

Jones was accustomed to playing heavy minutes in the WHL. He said he averaged about 25 per game during the regular season and about 29 per game in the Memorial Cup. He said playing 25 per game in the NHL is a lot harder, something he learned against the Wild on Tuesday.

"I thought I did a decent job defensively of holding my own out there," he said. "The 25 minutes is a little more tiring. You have to be able to manage your ice a little better in this League because if you get caught out there, you get caught out there and it's not something that you want."

With Jones' surprising mobility for his size, he doesn't get caught much.

"He can skate," Weber said. "You look at how big and rangy he is, and he walks out on the ice and he's fluid and he moves all over the ice so easily. It's going to help him along the way here."

Three games into his NHL career, Jones is getting excellent reviews. Trotz said he graded him as an A-plus for his second game, a 3-2 road loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Tuesday, the coach broke out a little more red ink.

"Actually, I thought that was one of his weaker games out of his three," Trotz said. "That was a little bit probably putting him on the left side. I found him not as clean as he was with pucks as he was on the right side. He got a little taste of high-level forwards and a full dose of Koivu and Parise, who really dogs the puck and is relentless."

It's all part of the learning process for what has the initial appearance of a long and successful career.

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