Throughout the week, United States of Hockey will profile invitees for the U.S. pre-tournament camp which begins Sunday, Dec. 16, with each profile followed by additional camp content.
Seth Jones — Defense
Hometown: Plano, Texas Birthdate: October 3, 1994
Current Team: Portland Winterhawks
NHL Rights: NHL Draft Eligible in 2013
National Team Experience: National Team Development Program (2010-12), U.S. National Under-18 Team (2011, gold; 2012, gold World Under-18 Championship)
There are several star players on this team. The third and ninth overall picks from last year’s NHL Draft are on the team. There’s an AHLer. There are sons of former NHLers. Then there’s Seth Jones.
The big defenseman has been followed closely and hyped up since he was 14 years old. He’s the story everyone wants to write. From his former NBA-playing father, to his Texas roots to being an African-American hockey player, everyone wants to find a different angle, but the stories invariably carry the same tune.
While his story certainly is an intriguing one, he wouldn’t be getting all of this attention if he wasn’t as good as he is. There are a lot of hopes and expectations that follow Jones around, more than any American player in recent memory has had to deal with it seems.
Jones tends to take it all in stride, however, not reading into the hype and focusing on his job. Perhaps that’s why any time expectations are put on him, he exceeds them.
USA Hockey will have to hope that trend continues as expectations will be sky high for Jones heading in into this tournament.
Of course, this being Jones’ draft season and he being a candidate for the No. 1 overall selection, all eyes will be on him at the tournament. Every game, every shift and every play will be analyzed. There’s going to be some pressure to perform.
It will be up to Jones to block that out and simply play his game, which for the big Texan shouldn’t be terribly hard. He’s already been doing that for years.
Jones would have played in this tournament last year as an underager, but a shoulder injury in a pre-tournament exhibition against Russia left him unable to participate. He would have been a difference maker on last year’s team and perhaps would have helped prevent the seventh-place finish.
It seems silly to think that one player could make that big a difference, but in this case, it’s probably true.
Jones is one of those rare defensemen that can quite literally control the game. His elite hockey sense, and I do mean elite, allows Jones to minimize mistakes and not make just a good play, but the best play. He does it with such stunning regularity that it’s as if someone programmed him specifically for hockey.
Over the last few years, Jones has eliminated the weaknesses in his game.
As a younger player he wasn’t physical enough, not often engaging and taking opportunities to separate an opponent from the puck with anything other than his stick. It didn’t make him any less effective, but NHL execs expect their defensemen to play physical. It may not yet be a strength in his game, but Jones has added more grit, which at 6-4, 200-plus pounds makes him even tougher to play against.
Then, even last year, scouts wanted to see more offense out of Jones even though he produced pretty admirably in his U18 season at the NTDP.
With Portland this year, Jones has been able to display that he’s not just a defensive defenseman. With 28 points in 30 games in his first WHL season, Jones has shown an ability at both ends of the ice. He even has a highlight-reel goal to his name this year.
As his physical and offensive games have progressed, it will always be Jones’ defense that sets him apart from other prospects. It’s at a level that many NHL players won’t touch in their careers and it all starts with his brain.
When saying Jones has the ability to take over games, it’s all about how he can control the defensive zone. The big blueliner is an enemy of forecheckers and dump-and-chase hockey. He’s usually the first man back to retrieve the puck in his own end and good luck getting it from him.
He uses his body and excellent stickhandling skills to protect the puck from the oncoming forecheck, uses the boards to his advantage and has the innate ability to know where his outlets are at all times. Additionally, he is really good at absorbing the hits without losing the puck, if a forward is able to get to him in time.
This skill set is particularly important against Canada, which is a team that stereotypically applies relentless pressure on the forecheck and an oftentimes devastating physical attack.
Additionally, Jones has a good defensive stick, clogging passing lanes and using his reach to poke the puck away when dropping a shoulder isn’t an option. He has terrific skating ability and a smoothness. His poise with the puck and crisp passing allow him to support the transition and get involved offensively. He has a heavy, accurate shot from the point and has shown he can certainly be part of any power-play unit.
With all the star power on the U.S., with first-round draft picks and the like, this is Jones’ team. He’s one of the five core guys the U.S. needs to have at his best to have any type of success. If he plays at his highest level, he’s the best defenseman in the tournament and probably the best the U.S. has had in a long, long time.
Everyone already knows Seth Jones. They know his story and they know his ability. Now they get to see him on his biggest stage yet.
Team USA’s CHL-NCAA Dynamic
Every year one of the most talked about elements of the U.S. team is the number of players from both college hockey and the Canadian Hockey League. As the World Juniors is most closely followed en masse by Canadian fans, cries of bias in years when the U.S. took more college players than major junior players were pretty much the norm.
Up until 2010, they may have been at least half right. There wasn’t an out-and-out bias against CHL players on behalf of the decision makers, but there was a lack of familiarity. Almost all of the coaches for U.S. teams at the World Juniors were full-time college coaches. On a few occasions, USA Hockey had their NTDP head coaches fill that role, but most often the entire staff was college-hockey based.
There also wasn’t nearly as much emphasis put on this tournament until maybe the last decade, so the scouting and the preparation, while not taken lightly, were not as broadly executed as they are now.
Now USA Hockey has a full-time director of player personnel — former Yale coach Tim Taylor — dedicated to this team, giving Jim Johannson, the assistant executive director of hockey operations and Team USA GM, an extra set of eyes in the field. Taylor sees an awful lot of college hockey, but he’s also getting more looks at players in the CHL. As soon as one tournament ends, he’s scouting for the next.
The result has been more and more CHL players finding their way on U.S. rosters. Even five years ago, it would be almost unheard of to find guys like Luke Walker (2010) and Mitch Callahan (2011) making the team as role players. Usually those spots were reserved for college kids with a strong USA Hockey track record, which neither Walker nor Callahan possessed at the time. So I think it’s safe to say that strides are being made to leave no stone unturned when putting this team together.
Part of the influx of CHL talent also has to do with the ever-changing landscape in developmental hockey. There are more Americans heading north, many of them high-end players. So there’s really not much room for bias anymore.
This year, 11 players currently playing in the CHL and one former CHLer are going to be partaking in camp, so there is a chance that half the team comes from the CHL. If not that, this roster could potentially include more CHL players than any year previously, with the record set by 2010 and 2009′s teams each including eight players. One of those teams won gold, the other finished fifth.
The important thing to remember when the final roster is chosen, particularly this year, is that USA Hockey can’t afford to leave guys off for petty reasons. I think that’s pretty well understood by the people in the “front office” for this team. It has to be about finding the right mix and the right fits for certain roles.
The interesting wrinkle to the process this year is the presence of Phil Housley as head coach. He doesn’t coach in college hockey, he didn’t play college hockey and he also didn’t play major junior. He’s one of the rare guys to go straight from high school to the pros. So if there’s any loyalty to one route or the other, it isn’t likely to show (As an aside, all three of his assistant coaches are coaches at NCAA programs). He may be Minnesota based, which makes it a lot easier for him to see college guys as opposed to CHL players, but there may not be that loyalty to the college game some previous coaches have held.
Fans tend to get a little too hung up on who is or isn’t there. Picking a team for this tournament is an inexact science. No matter who you bring, it’s very difficult to determine how things will play out. Last year, the U.S. looked like it had a team that could compete for a medal, perhaps even gold, but they finished seventh. Who would have thought a team with Brandon Saad, Emerson Etem, Charlie Coyle, Nick Bjugstad, Jarred Tinordi, Jon Merrill, Austin Watson and Jack Campbell, just to name a few, would finish seventh?
There have been plenty of guys from both paths that were brought in and flopped, but based on the efforts USA Hockey has made in the past three or four years now, the guys who get cut aren’t getting cut because of a decision they’ve made or where they play or their past. It will simply be on the merits of that player’s talent and what he can bring to the team that the U.S. needs to be successful. That’s it.
Just for the sake of information, here’s how the last several U.S. National Junior Teams have been impacted by CHL players.
Year — # of CHL players — Finish
2012 — 7 — 7th
2011 — 4 — Bronze
2010 — 8 — Gold
2009 — 8 — 5th
2008 — 4 — 4th
2007 — 4 — Bronze
And just for the heck of it…
2004 — 3 — Gold
They’ve won with a lot and a little and they’ve lost with a lot and a little.
Perhaps this is the year that will put the bias debate to bed once and for all, but there’s always going to be something to argue about when the final roster is picked, so don’t get your hopes up. I’m not.