LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Seth Jones arrived for the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp a year ago as a talented 16-year-old defenseman who was looking to make a name for himself as a candidate for future national teams.
One year after an eye-opening performance, Jones returned here not only as a near-lock to play for Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Championship, but as the potential No. 1 pick of the 2013 NHL Draft.
Physically matured at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, Jones has performed at this week's camp like the dominant presence who wowed the USA Hockey staff last year -- but now he's a year bigger, stronger and more experienced.
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Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Staff Writer
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"He's physically more developed, but I think he's a much more mature player on the ice," Team USA general manager Jim Johannson told NHL.com. "I think there's a little more calm to his game, but there's a little more physical dominance to his game. You're getting the calm of more experience, but you're getting a much more physical presence in everything he does. The passes are harder, the shots are harder, the strides have more strength behind it. He's becoming an extremely well-rounded player who happens to be 6-foot-4 and agile and all those things. There's so many unique talents he has."
Jones showcased those talents last season, finishing with six goals and 20 assists in 48 games with the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 team. He would have had a chance to extend that to the 2012 WJC, but a shoulder injury in the last exhibition game knocked him out of that tournament.
"I was just driving wide and I got hit and I was off-balance," Jones told NHL.com. "Just went into the boards and got a grade-2 AC [joint] separation. I couldn't move it, and I was in a sling for a couple weeks. That was the end of that."
He recovered to captain Team USA at the World Under-18 Championship, totaling eight points in six games as the United States won the gold medal.
"Watching him play last year on a team where just about everyone else could be drafted … this kid was probably their best defenseman all year, in my opinion," NHL Central Scouting's David Gregory told NHL.com.
Jones will see his first action of the camp since Monday when he takes the ice Thursday against Sweden.
After the Lake Placid camp, Jones will get ready for his first season in the Western Hockey League with the Portland Winterhawks, who traded four players and a draft pick to the Everett Silvertips for his rights in May.
"Seth is a world-class player with the ability to come in and make an immediate impact next season," Portland coach/GM Mike Johnston said. "He combines tremendous offensive instincts with the ability to be a shut-down defenseman in his own end. This is a very big signing for us, and we're thrilled he's chosen to continue his career with the Winterhawks and the Western Hockey League."
Jones said the decision to go the Western Hockey League route rather than NCAA hockey -- the University of North Dakota was his top choice -- was a "gut feeling I had."
"I went to North Dakota, visited there. That was my No. 1 college choice," Jones said. "I loved that place, great facility, great everything there. It was tough to turn down. Then I went to Portland the next weekend. Their facilities are great, the coaching staff is unbelievable."
Gregory said playing for a top-end club like Portland will give scouts a better chance to evaluate Jones in a more grueling environment, including an NHL-type schedule with difficult travel.
"The fact that he is going to play in the Western Hockey League, it's going to be a different type of grind," Gregory said. "Teams are going to see him play that long a season, potentially through a long playoff. Portland is predicted probably to be in a good playoff position. That will be something he wants to show potential NHL clubs what kind of player he can be in that type of season."
It also helps that Portland has done a tremendous job developing top-end NHL talent the past few years, with recent alums including the Islanders' Nino Niederreiter, the Blue Jackets' Ryan Johansen, the Flames' Sven Baertschi and Penguins prospects Joe Morrow and Derrick Pouliot.
"He's physically more developed, but I think he's a much more mature player on the ice. I think there's a little more calm to his game, but there's a little more physical dominance to his game. You're getting the calm of more experience, but you're getting a much more physical presence in everything he does. The passes are harder, the shots are harder, the strides have more strength behind it." -- Team USA GM Jim Johannson on Seth Jones
"Knowing the program and what they do produces NHL players -- that's my No. 1 goal, to play in the NHL as quick as possible," Jones said. "That did take a little bit of an effect in my decision."
While he learns the ins and outs of the WHL, he'll have every move chronicled by NHL scouts.
"He has all the physical abilities to be a top National Hockey League defenseman," one scout for an Eastern Conference team told NHL.com. "Now he has to continue to elevate his game. He's got to show the scouts out here how much hockey sense he has."
Jones said he knows the scouts are watching him, but he's determined not to let it affect him.
"It's very overwhelming, but I'm trying to take it all in and stay focused," he said. "I'm definitely blocking all that out right now. I'm looking to start the year out great in Portland."
About the only thing about Jones that hasn't changed from a year ago is the fact he's still the youngest player in camp.
"He's the youngest player in birth year," Johansson said, "but if you asked all the players, I don't think any of them would know that."
Jones won't turn 18 until Oct. 3, but he already has taken a leading role with a group that features only three players who skated in last year's tournament.
"He's a year bigger and stronger, but there's more leadership coming from him," Johansson said. "I think he had that leadership before, but it's hard when you're the youngest kid in camp to be a leader. He did it on the ice. But you're seeing now a lot more presence in the locker room, a lot more presence around all the players in the camp. I think he's a guy that as his game on the ice has matured, he's taking on some of those leadership qualities that he wants to be trademarks of him and trademarks of any team he plays on."
Jones said he thinks he can be even better this year because of the experience he gained by going through the process a year ago.
"I feel a little more calm this year," he said. "Last year I was tense and showing everyone what I can do. This year I'm sticking to my game, staying calm, making plays I make on a regular basis, not trying to do anything too fancy."
As was the case last year, everything that Jones is doing this year has scouts wanting more.
"Every tool is there," Gregory said. "In our business we see so much hockey and every once in a while there's players you can't wait to see again, and for me, he's one of those players."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK