NASHVILLE, Tenn. – It wasn’t all that long ago when the Nashville Predators sported the NHL’s best defensive pairing in Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. Despite an offense that was anemic more often that it was not, those two, along with one of the world’s top goaltenders, led the Preds to consecutive years with a playoff series win in 2011 and 2012 — setting a new standard for excellence in the Music City.
Suter has since departed, and the hole he left on Nashville’s blue line has been palpable. But with Weber still in tow, along with rookie phenom Seth Jones, it may not be long before this franchise possesses one of the league’s most formidable duos once again.
Now that Roman Josi is out indefinitely with a concussion, head coach Barry Trotz decided to slide Jones into the Swiss rearguard’s position for Tuesday’s home opener versus Minnesota. It may not be a long-term solution — Trotz said Josi will likely re-join Weber when he returns — but for now, Jones is getting a crack at that role.
“The other night when [Josi] went down [Seth] played big minutes, and it didn’t seem to faze him a bit,” Trotz said after Monday’s practice. “I’m probably, at this point, more impressed with Seth [than I thought I'd be]. He’s just played well and with a lot of poise. He has a very mature game, he’s a bright young man who’s humble in his game and trying to improve his game.”
The decision to unite Weber and Jones proved to pay immediate dividends. They were extremely effective against the Wild on Tuesday, and their success was key to Nashville’s 3-2 victory: the team’s first win of the young 2013-14 season.
Jones led the Preds in TOI (25:02), something he’s now done for two straight games. It’s rare — almost unheard of, even — to see a teenage D-man log so many minutes and play so well in the process.
But then again, Jones is not your average kid.
“Seth looked great out there. He looked like a No. 1 D-man,” said Weber. ”He’s a good talent, and he’s only 19 years old, so he’s only going to get better.”
“We made a lot of solid plays,” said Jones. “I tried to force pucks through the middle a few times, but I thought together we played well … I thought we did a decent job, me and Shea, shutting down their top line.”
The night didn’t get off to a great start for the Nashville rookie, as he committed a minor penalty 3:13 after the opening face-off, which led to a Wild PPG. And moments later, while the Preds were on a man-advantage of their own, Jones failed to keep the puck in the offensive zone, leading to a Minnesota rush the other way.
That rush could have easily turned into a 2-on-1, but Jones hustled back and cut off the shooting lane by the left circle. By doing so he also drew a tripping call, giving Nashville a 5-on-3 for more than a minute.
Seconds later, Jones wristed the puck to the net — eventually leading to a Filip Forsberg goal: his first NHL tally and Jones’ first NHL point.
“I got the puck, moved it down to [Forsberg], he didn’t really have a lane so he moved it back up and I just tried to get it through,” Jones said. “I think it hit one of their guy’s stick, hit Hornqvist’s knee pad, and right on to the backdoor.”
The Preds have talked a lot about how they want to get the puck to the net more often — especially on the power play — and Jones did that just about as well as anyone on Tuesday. His six shot attempted led Nashville, all but one of which helped create either a quality scoring chance, sustained pressure or both.
“Having someone like Seth who shoots a lot is really important for us,” said Weber. “Again, that’s just something that’s going to get better for him in time.”
Nashville struggles to get shots off during the PP for a number of reasons, one of which is because defenses tend to zero in on Weber and prevent him from unleashing his lethal slap shot. But now that him and Jones are out on the points together, opponents are going to have to start respecting the rookie’s ability, which should open things up for some 100 MPH bullets courtesy of Nashville’s captain.
Responding to Adversity
We knew Jones would have some growing pains this year, but the way in which he’s responded to adversity speaks volumes about just how much talent he’s blessed with — both in a mental and physical sense. Through training camp, preseason and the first three games of the regular season, he’s been able to immediately bounce back from almost every mistake he’s made.
“He played very well after [his penalty],” said Trotz. “There were a couple moments where I think he realized that this is a pretty good league, and we put him in a tough spot a bit on the left spot … but he doesn’t seem too fazed by anything.”
“After I took the high stick — it was a bad penalty — they scored, we knew we hadn’t scored a power play goal this season yet so far, so it was nice to get the power play going,” said Jones. “I think that’s what definitely turned the game around.”
Maybe Josi rejoins Weber when he makes his return to the lineup. Maybe he doesn’t. If tonight is any indication, though, Jones may may not be dropped from the top of the depth chart for quite some time.
While the uber-talented rookie still has a lot of room to improve, he’s given us every reason to believe he can one day replace the superstar-sized hole Suter left when he ran off to The North Star State — regardless of who he skates with.
And right now, it sure feels like that time will come sooner rather than later.
Here’s what Barry Trotz had to say following Nashville’s 3-2 win over Minnesota:
Fittingly, the Jones/Weber pair came to fruition on the night Suter made his return to Bridgestone Arena. While those wearing gold sweaters received thunderous ovations, the former Pred wasn’t greeted quite as well: