Of all the thousands of scouts, coaches and executives who have evaluated Seth Jones over the last several years, few can dissect the young defenseman’s game better than Mike Johnston.
As the bench boss of the Portland Winterhawks (WHL), Johnston, who coached Jones for part of 2012-13, saw the 6′ 4” rearguard evolve from a promising 17-year-old into one of the most highly-discussed, highly-touted players in the world. And with Jones’ days in junior hockey likely behind him, Johnston took a few minutes to reflect on his time working with Nashville’s top prospect in an exclusive interview with Sunbelt Hockey Journal.
“He’s going to be a very good two-way defenseman,” Johnston said of Jones. “He’s extremely smart, moves the puck well, sees the game well in all areas and has the mental capacity to make it in the NHL. The Predators have a very special player on their hands, and that organization is as good as any for developing prospects like Seth.”
Also Portland’s GM, Johnston was suspended for the majority of last season for several player-benefit violations. Still, he got to see more than enough of Jones to realize the kid is a unique talent.
“It seemed like in big games he just brought his game to a different level,” he said. “This happened with us in Portland and in the World Juniors, as well. Just the key moments, he’s able to take charge of the game, and only the very best players are able to do that the way Seth does.”
What to expect in 2013-14?
While Johnston certainly had a lot of great things to say about Jones, he also believes the transition to the NHL game is going to be a challenge for the fourth overall pick. While several scouts I’ve spoken to believe Jones will make the jump to the Preds with relative ease, Johnston doesn’t see it unfolding that way.
“It’s really challenging to come out of junior hockey and play in the best league in the world,” said the veteran coach. “He certainly has to get stronger for the pro game. The strength and physical battles in the NHL will be a big adjustment for him.”
Johnston believes the difference in competition between juniors and the pro game is “staggering,” particularly for someone as young as 18 or 19. More so than his forward counterparts, Jones is going to face a plethora of challenges as a blue liner — and that needs to be taken into account when comparing his rookie campaign to those of fellow draftees Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Drouin.
“He just has to get used to the differences in play as you move up to a much, much higher level, especially as a D-man,” Johnston said. “He’s going to make mistakes as a rookie; probably a lot of them. But that’s a part of the process, and Nashville knows that when they put a kid his age out on the ice against the likes of Chicago and Detroit. That’s something the fans have to be ready for, otherwise they’ll probably be disappointed at times this year.
“He’s going to have his ups and downs, but mentally he’ll be able to handle that. He knows what he has to do, but at the same time it’ll be a big challenge for him as a 19-year-old kid.”
A Familiarity Among Coaches
Johnston and Barry Trotz, who are both been instrumental figures for Canada’s national hockey program, have known each other for many years, and their relationship should help Seth in his progression moving forward.
The two spoke at length at this summer’s draft and after Nashville’s development camp. Johnston doesn’t believe that Trotz will come to him for advice all that often, and trusts that the Preds know exactly how to handle Jones.
“Barry and his staff have done a phenomenal job with the young guys over the years,” said Johnston. “Seth is going to get the same guidance that Suter and Weber and others got. You look at Nashville the way they’ve developed their defensemen; they just have to do what they’ve been doing with Seth.
“He’s a treat to coach because he’s very accepting of coaching He’s going to eat it up, and I think he’ll thrive like the other defensemen in Nashville.”
In closing, Johnston offered a bit of advice for Jones on how to handle his first season in the NHL:
“I would tell him to be patient with his game, let things happen out there and don’t try and do too much too early. Manage the game well, don’t try to force things, and he’ll be just fine.”
Photo credit: Chris Mast, Shoot the Breeze Photography; Brian Heim, Portland Winterhawks; David Chan; Robin Alam/Icon SMI