Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Most defencemen aren't able to play in a shutdown role for years. It took Seth Jones two games.
For Nashville's first two games of the season, Shea Weber took on the heavy lifting and was matched up almost exclusively against the opposition's top lines. Barry Trotz spread out Jones' minutes evenly amongst everyone else.
But when Roman Josi, Weber's usual partner, went down with a head injury in the second game of the season, it opened up the door for Jones to take on more responsibility. A lot of responsibility.
Weber usually plays some of the most difficult minutes of any defenceman. Last year Weber started 43.1% of his shifts in the defensive zone (21st lowest of 194 defencemen to play at least 24 games) and was out against the opponent's top line whenever Trotz could get the matchup (only 11 defencemen got a consistently tougher matchup). So asking Jones, a rookie with two games of NHL experience, to take on that role is asking a lot, especially considering Jones, a right-handed shot, has done it on the left side.
Since pairing with Weber, Jones has spent no less than 50% of his ice time against the opponent's top line, the only exception being against Montreal, a game in which Trotz switched up the matchup half-way through and sent out Weber and Jones against the Gallagher-Galchenyuk-Eller, as that line was the most dangerous. Against Minnesota in the third game of the season, Trotz had Jones out against the Parise-Koivu-Pominville line for almost 65% of his minutes. Talk about throwing the kid to the wolves.
Despite the tough minutes, the 2013 fourth overall pick has excelled. The Predators control 53.1% of all shot attempts at 5-on-5 with Jones on the ice compared to only 48.5% when he takes a breather. That works out to about 24 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play with Jones on the ice, which would make Nashville the fourth best team at preventing shots if they could somehow clone Jones and play him all night. He's one of the big reasons why Nashville has jumped from a poor puck possession club (fourth worst in 2012-13) to an above-average group (12th so far this season).
He's been great. For the visual learners, here's his beauty game-winning goal against the Montreal Canadiens. There's some skill involved on that play.
Jones is also playing a ton of special team minutes. His 2:52 of penalty kill time a game is good enough for fourth on the team, only three seconds a game behind Kevin Klein and Paul Gaustad. And Jones is already playing with Weber on the power play, logging almost three-and-a-half minutes with the man-advantage. He is doing everything for Nashville.
Not even Preds GM David Poile expected Jones to be this good, this early.
“You’d probably think you wean a player into your lineup, especially a younger player, in maybe the third pairing and the fifth or sixth amount of ice time," Poile said. "I mean, I thought that would probably be the normal way to do it."
In recent history that has been the normal way. Even some of the best young defencemen making the jump to the NHL as teenagers are eased into the lineup. Very rarely do any play top-line minutes in a shutdown role during their first season, let alone their first week in the NHL. Since 2007-08, 17 teenage defencemen have debuted in the NHL. Most played in a second- or third-pairing role. Only four played against the opposition's top line in their rookie season: Drew Doughty, Luke Schenn, Tyler Myers, and Jonas Brodin. Victor Hedman, the second overall pick from the 2009 draft, didn't grow into a first-pairing shutdown role until his third season.
Schenn and Myers have both stumbled in their development, but Doughty has become an elite defenceman and Brodin is probably one or two full seasons of excellent play away from joining the conversation. The way Jones has played early on this season, it wouldn't be a surprise if people start talking about him in the same way sooner rather than later. There is already a discussion about whether Jones has a shot at making the American Olympic team. It should help that Poile is Team USA's GM, and he hasn't exactly hidden his opinion.
“We’ve got 20 games to play before we have to make any decisions," Poile said. "If he keeps playing 20, 25 minutes a night in a successful fashion, he’s certainly going to be given consideration. He’s getting my vote.”