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Youth won't hold Jones back in Olympic bid

by John Manasso

NASHVILLE -- In discussing the recent play of his highly touted rookie defenseman Seth Jones last Saturday, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile used the adage "momentum is a wonderful thing."

At the time the Predators had lost four straight games by a score of 17-2 and Jones was a collective minus-4 in that span.

Poile then flipped that adage on its head.

"It's a terrible thing when you've got it going in the other direction," he said, "and everybody's caught up in that. Seth has had a strong year to this point. His last few games, have they been his best? No."

Momentum has begun to swing in a more positive direction since. That night Nashville defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks 7-2 and followed it with a 2-0 victory against the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday. Jones had an even rating in both games and played a combined total of more than 42 minutes.


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The subject at hand is one of great interest and speculation: Will the 19-year-old Jones land a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, of which Poile also serves as general manager?

The statistics make a case in Jones' favor. Entering Thursday, his 23:59 average time on ice ranked 26th among NHL defensemen but fifth among American defensemen, behind the Minnesota Wild's Ryan Suter, the Winnipeg Jets' Dustin Byfuglien, the Pittsburgh Penguins' Paul Martin and the New Jersey Devils' Andy Greene. His eight points rank 15th among U.S.-born defensemen.

Beyond statistics, a persuasive argument comes from Poile himself when lack of experience was raised as a rationale against selecting Jones.

"I'm defending him as I would if you bring up any other player," Poile said. "He has had European experience (the IIHF World Junior Championship). He has won a gold medal over in Europe. Again, the only thing you can say right now is he lacks experience. He has the size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) we're looking for. He can play both sides. I don't think you can say that about too many players we're going to choose. He can skate at the highest level. His hockey sense is there.

"There's a lot of things he has going for him but you've got to play well and you've got to play consistently."

Ah, consistency. That is where, until recently, Jones had begun to struggle. Jones started the season on the team's third defense pair but that did not last long. Roman Josi, who played on the first pair with captain Shea Weber, sustained a concussion in the second game of the season and coach Barry Trotz elevated Jones to play with Weber.

Paired with the two-time Norris Trophy finalist, Jones' ice time went up and up and up. He played 28:14 on Oct. 17 in a 2-1 overtime loss against the Los Angeles Kings; 27:29 in a 2-1 road win Oct. 19 against the Montreal Canadiens, in which he scored a dazzling game-winning goal; 28:13 on Oct. 24 at Winnipeg in a 3-1 victory; and a season-high of 30:19 on Oct. 31 against the Phoenix Coyotes in a 5-4 overtime loss.

"There's not many 19-year-olds who are getting put -- especially on defense -- head-to-head against the best in the business every night without us even thinking twice about it," Trotz said.

Then two things happened. First, the team's goaltending began to falter with No. 1 Pekka Rinne, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, out indefinitely starting Oct. 22 with an infection in his hip. Second, Josi returned Oct. 31.

"We need to get Roman Josi going here,” Trotz said of the player named the MVP of the 2013 IIHF World Championship. "Roman hasn't played near Roman Josi ability this year. I know he got nicked up early and hasn't really, to me, caught up to the level of play that I'm used to seeing him play and … we were playing Seth so much. He's a big, strong young man but he doesn't have 'man strength' yet, and when you're playing those kinds of minutes that's physically demanding on a young man, but he's done a really good job for the position we've put him in."

Jones agreed his play this season has been up and down.

"Quite a bit, yeah," he said. "Some games I didn't play too well. Some I did. I have to try to be a little more consistent than that. That's unacceptable and not to my standards."

Since Trotz decided to reunite Weber and Josi, Jones has played on the second pair with veteran Kevin Klein, who is about as consistent as they come. Things appear to have stabilized.

"I'd say it's a learning process," Klein said. "When we're playing with different partners, trying to get used to each other, I haven't played too much with Seth. We're trying to get our [defensive] zone as a unit of five. Defense is a team effort -- all the guys doing their jobs. We're trying to eliminate the cycle game, which we haven't been doing a great job of. It's a learning process for the two of us."

"He's still a young kid. I don't think he should be mad if he doesn't make it. I think he's a big face of USA Hockey for the future. He's obviously a great player with what he's done this year and what he's done in the past. I think USA Hockey will expect some big things from him in the future for sure."
-- Blackhawks F Patrick Kane on Nashville D Seth Jones

Chicago right wing Patrick Kane played on the U.S. Olympic team in 2010 when he was 21 years old. But Kane was in his third season in the League and playing forward is different than playing defense, as defensemen log added minutes and experience becomes more of a factor.

"He's still a young kid," Kane said. "I don't think he should be mad if he doesn't make it. I think he's a big face of USA Hockey for the future. He's obviously a great player with what he's done this year and what he's done in the past. I think USA Hockey will expect some big things from him in the future for sure."

For his part Jones is thinking more about playing well for his NHL team than he is about playing for his country.

"Not really," he said of thoughts about the Olympics. "Just focusing here. We need to get things back on track here. I play for the Nashville Predators right now. That's where 100 percent of my focus is."

Yet playing for the Nashville Predators holds the key to competing in the Olympics and Jones remains in the hunt to land a spot.

"We still have decisions to make at every position but we're certainly zoning in on what I would call our ghost roster or what have you, and players like Seth are clearly in the mix," Poile said. "His potential is as high, if not higher, than anybody we have on our team. He is the youngest player, one of the youngest players we've talked about, so from that standpoint he lacks experience. So for him it's critical in the month of December.

"If he's one of the best USA defensemen in the month of December he's got a real good chance."

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