When Seth Jones arrived at Nashville Predators training camp last month, he didn't want his family to make the move with him until he was assured he would be starting the season with the team.
Predators general manager David Poile and coach Barry Trotz made no effort to hide that the No. 4 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft would be doing just that, but Jones still didn't want to take any chances.
So Jones lived with Predators captain Shea Weber, the present and future of the franchise under one roof, playing video games together and getting to know each other.
"He didn't have a whole lot to do," Weber said of his temporary boarder. "Keep his room neat and tidy and maybe take the dogs out every once in a while."
Once Jones survived the final cuts at camp, his mother Amy moved to Nashville to live with her son, a situation Jones hopes will continue all season.
"If I stay here, and I hope to, that's my plan," Jones said, with a straight face, Saturday morning before his Predators took on the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre.
"Are you kidding?" Jones was asked by a reporter.
"You never know," he responded with a shrug. "I haven't played [game] nine or 10 yet, so we'll see."
Jones' ninth game will come Sunday night when the Predators play at the Winnipeg Jets, and if he plays in Nashville's game Tuesday night in Minnesota the first year of his entry-level contract will kick in, thereby providing the assurance that he will indeed be living in Nashville with his mom all season.
As if that were ever in doubt.
"Seth hasn't taken anything for granted," Trotz said prior to Saturday night's game. "He wouldn't have his family move down until he made the team, he didn't want to take anything for granted and I don't think he does. He has a lot of respect for the game in terms of being able to make the team, being able to contribute."
Just a few hours after wondering aloud whether he would be spending the season in the NHL or the Western Hockey League, Jones contributed in the biggest way possible and provided further evidence he not only belongs in Nashville, but that he is an integral part of the Predators' chances for success this season.
Late in the game against the Canadiens, Jones stopped a clearing attempt at the offensive blue line and fed the puck to David Legwand on the half boards. With the game tied 1-1 and less than two minutes remaining in regulation, a normal rookie, let alone one who is 19 years old, probably would have chosen to play it safe in that situation and stay on his point.
But Jones, as he has exhibited all season, is not a normal rookie.
"There's nothing normal about this," Poile said.
Immediately after feeding Legwand, Jones cut to the net and took a return feed in the slot. Then, instead of shooting it immediately, Jones deftly deked around Predators forward Patric Hornqvist and Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges, who were tangled up in front of the net, and then beat Canadiens goalie Carey Price with a quick, accurate shot to the short side with 1:27 remaining in regulation.
"It's typical for him," Legwand told NHL.com after the game. "He's a smart hockey player and he takes chances at the right time. He can skate himself out of mistakes."
The goal put an end to what has become a typical night of work for Jones playing alongside his former roommate Weber on Nashville's top defense pair: 27:29 of ice time, including 5:56 on the power play and 4:31 shorthanded. The goal came on Jones' 12th shift of the third period and his 32nd of the game.
"He's playing extremely well," Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne said. "It's fun to watch when he's that young of a guy and he just uses his strengths. He's moving the puck, he's not afraid to beat guys and sometimes make risky plays. He has that confidence and that swagger that he plays with, so it's great to have him."
Saturday was the second straight game Jones topped the 27-minute mark in ice time and the fifth time in eight games this season he was above 25 minutes. On top of that, Jones is doing it all playing on the left side as a right-handed shot, something he did only sporadically as he was growing up, but which he is now being asked to do in the most difficult League in the world.
Did we mention he's 19?
"He's a sponge. You don't have to tell him too many times. He's got a lot of maturity in his game," Trotz said. "We were very fortunate to get Seth at four [in the draft]. I think he's going to be a piece of any success we have for the next decade, really."
That good fortune in the draft was borne out of a situation Poile would rather not go through again.
Late last season, the Predators were in the mix for their fourth straight berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when a rash of injuries hit their group of forwards, seven of them going down in March and April. Meanwhile another forward, Martin Erat, second on the Predators' all-time list in points (481) and games played (723), asked for a trade from the only franchise he had ever known, something Poile says he attempted to talk Erat out of for three weeks.
The Erat trade demand was the end of a sequence of events that had Nashville at a crossroads as a franchise, starting with defenseman Ryan Suter's decision to leave as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2012 to sign with the Minnesota Wild, and Weber signing a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet with the Philadelphia Flyers shortly afterward that the Predators were forced to match.
The three of them defined who the Predators were, in many ways, and when Erat demanded a trade Poile had to come to grips with the reality that two of them would be playing elsewhere.
But then Poile was able to trade Erat to the Washington Capitals for forward Filip Forsberg, the No. 11 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, on April 3. His team was in the midst of a nose dive that would see it go from ninth place in the Western Conference with a 14-13-6 record on March 25 down to 14th in the conference by season's end, finishing with a 2-10-3 slide.
That left the Predators with the No. 4 pick at the 2013 NHL Draft, and though he was ranked as the top prospect by NHL Central Scouting and other scouting services, Jones was passed over by the Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning to fall to Nashville.
"We suffered a lot of pain, and that was not very much fun," Poile said. "But the reward for that was that we got Seth Jones and we got Filip Forsberg. I guess that's good, but I don't want to be doing that again.
"I'd much rather be in the playoffs and going in a different direction."
Jones and Forsberg will likely play a big part in making that happen, but at first glance that appears to be all they have in common.
One is the African-American son of a former NBA player and coach, practically born in the spotlight. The other is a soft-spoken Swede from Ostervala, a small town of about 1,500 people 80 miles north of Stockholm.
But both are extremely talented hockey players, and both went far later in the draft than they were supposed to.
Now both will be looked upon to form the foundation of the Predators.
"[Forsberg]'s going to be a real good player," Trotz said, comparing Forsberg's hands and ability to navigate with the puck in space to Jaromir Jagr. "We've really lucked out and made some good decisions to get two young players that are going to have a big impact on our future as a franchise."
While Jones has openly stated that sliding down the draft will serve as motivation, calling it "a long nine minutes" before it was Nashville's turn to pick, Forsberg says dropping to 11th when some had him ranked among the top-five in the 2012 draft was not that difficult.
"I read the rankings, and I was pretty high on some of them and a little bit lower on other ones," Forsberg told NHL.com. "So I wasn't really sure where I would go, and my agent wasn't even sure because he heard a lot of different things going on. I was just excited to see where my future will be, and obviously that wasn't even my future with the Capitals.
"You learn that's a big part of life playing in the National Hockey League. Hopefully I don't get traded anymore, but we'll see. I just want to keep playing well and working hard to keep my spot on the roster. That's all I'm thinking about right now."
Forsberg has not had the same impact as Jones this season, with one goal and two assists through six games, averaging 13:46 of ice time per game with significant time on the power play.
But he, like Jones, is 19, and the only reason his performance thus far can be seen by anyone as underwhelming would be because of what Jones is doing on the blue line behind him.
"He's really poised and very mature for a young guy," Trotz said of Forsberg. "You don't have to tell him too many times, he understands."
Those words, poise and maturity, come back over and over again when the Predators talk about Jones as well, and he's epitomized the former on the ice while displaying the latter off of it.
"His maturity is as good as any player I've ever dealt with, his respect level," Poile said. "As I told his parents, I talked with them after the development camp in Nashville in July and they wanted to know how he did on the ice, and I never talked about one thing he did on the ice. I just told them about how good of a person he was.
"He's made a couple of mistakes, but when he makes a mistake he doesn't get down, he doesn't have the bad body language. He's the real deal and he's going to be a real good player."
The scary thing for the rest of the NHL is that Jones may already be a real good player. And he's just getting started.
Author: Arpon Basu | Managing Editor LNH.com
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