There have been countless arguments over the last few decades — some valid, some not — against the NHL’s southern expansion. Organizations like Florida and Phoenix have struggled financially and at the gate, and many believe there are other cities above the Mason Dixon line that would better support these teams than their Sunbelt counterparts.

But one overlooked aspect of the league’s sojourn into non-traditional markets is the impact it has on our youth. Having NHL franchises in places like Tampa Bay, Raleigh and Dallas give kids in these areas a chance to catch the hockey bug; a chance to see the sport at its highest level up close and in person.

Just ask Seth Jones — one of the top rated prospects in this year’s NHL Draft class.

SETH_31893600Jones, picked fourth overall by the Predators on Sunday, spent the majority of his childhood in Texas. A native of Arlington, he evolved into a premier young defensemen with the Dallas Stars’ youth program, where he played for former Stars’ D-man Craig Ludwig.

“He’s a good kid,” Ludwig said of Jones. “I know you hear that a lot about players at times like this, but he really is a good kid with a solid head on his shoulders and a lot of talent.

“There was one time where we just talked on the bench during a game, and he would tell me what he was seeing, and he was like a coach out there. I’d be trying to explain things to the other kids, and he was already two moves ahead.”

Having lived in areas such as Denver and Toronto, the Jones family wasn’t sure if Texas would provide Seth with the hockey schooling he desired. But it didn’t take long to convince mom and dad that their son could in fact grow into a top prospect in the Lone Star State.

“To be honest, yes I was worried about hockey in Texas … but it worked out for a couple of reasons,” Seth’s mother, Amy, said. “One, the youth hockey is great here, and they do an excellent job coaching. Two, Seth decided to play on a team with boys his own age, and that actually was a turning point for him. That’s where I think he finally decided he could be a leader.”

Jones captained the Dallas Stars U-16 team during the 2008-09 season and joined their U-18 program the following year. His success in Texas garnered attention from USA Hockey brass, and he joined the US National Development Program during the 2010-11 campaign, where he thrived.

During his time with the USNTDP, Jones won three gold medals: two with the U18’s and one with the U20’s. His performance in the U20 World Juniors was particularly impressive, as he registered seven points (1G, 6A) in seven contests en route to a championship.

Upon joining the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, Jones quickly rose to the top of everyone’s draft boards. He posted 56 points (14G, 42A) in 61 regular season games in 2012-13, and sported a plus-46 plus/minus rating. In the playoffs, where he helped lead the Hawks to the Memorial Cup final, he racked up 15 points (5G, 10A) in 21 contests.

Jones’ success in Portland and in international play led Nashville to put the 6′ 4” rearguard at the top of their draft wish list. For David Poile and Co., Sunday must have felt like Christmas.

Looking Ahead

Jones will join a Nashville squad that already possesses some fantastic talent on the blue line. He’ll have the chance to learn from one of the best in Shea Weber, and should excel in the Preds’ defense-first mentality.

“We were thrilled that he was there at four,” Nashville’s Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty said.  “He’s a terrific defenseman and a world-class player that can do it all, both offensively and defensively.  He’s six-foot-four.  He can skate.  He can carry the puck up ice, make plays, defend, and he’s only going to get better.  We’re thrilled to add him to our core that we have on defense.  We feel like we have a real bright future there.”

Jones should step right into the Preds’ lineup and make the transition from the WHL to the NHL with minimal adversity. With him, Weber,  Roman Josi, Kevin Klein and goaltender Pekka Rinne in the fold, Nashville has the potential to be one of the most defensively staunch teams in the league next year.

While they experienced their fair share of adversity in the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, the Preds aren’t all that far off from becoming a contender once again. And when the fans of Smashville witness the playoffs once more, Jones figures to be a big part of that success.

“(Jones is) the whole package,” Poile said prior to the draft. “He has size, he’s got great skating, offensive abilities – he could be a Norris Trophy winner.”

A Different Era

“When I was a guy growing up, the only sports offered to me in a small town in Tennessee were basketball, football and baseball,” Popeye said last December.

How times have changed. Tennessee now boasts a prospering youth hockey program, which you can learn more about here. Thanks to growing interest, a new rink — the third in the Nashville area —  is being built right now and will be partially financed by the Preds.

Popeye didn’t have the luxury of a local hockey program, but his son did. Had it not been for Dallas’ budding hockey scene, Seth may have never developed into an elite prospect.

Jones’ success should serve as an example for why we need to continue to grow the game in non-traditional markets. We owe it to the well-being of hockey to give as many kids as possible a chance at succeeding on the ice.

Because when a kid from Arlington, Tex., can become one of the best young players in the world, who’s to say any kid in this country — regardless of his geographical location — can’t do the same?

Photo credit: Amy Jones, David Chan

About The Author

Andrew Hirsh is a graduate of Elon University and is entering his fourth year as a credentialed NHL writer. He founded SunbeltHockey.com in 2012 and serves as the site's managing editor. Andrew can be reached via email at ahirsh3@gmail.com.