With his first season of major junior hockey not even complete, Seth Jones is already being ticketed for NHL stardom.
But the Portland Winterhawks defenceman — ranked as the top North American skater by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau in this year’s draft — is striving to keep his cool while others get excited about his play.
He is following the advice of his father Popeye Jones, a former NBA star, to remain level-headed and just get through the long, gruelling WHL season.
“It’s not quite as long as the NHL or the NBA, but it’s pretty close,” said the 18-year-old Jones. “You’ve got a lot of games, a lot of back-to-backs, a lot of four-games-in-five nights, stuff like that, so you’ve got to take care of your body and stay focused.”
NHL general managers will spend the rest of the season and part of the summer trying to determine how he has handled a circuit that, along with the OHL and QMJHL, is the closest comparison to the NHL that teenagers get.
How NHL-ready is he?
“It’s tough to say,” said Jones. “You want to think that you can play in the NHL right away, but sometimes that’s not for everyone, obviously. Sometimes it takes a little bit more time to develop as a player, and maturity level.
“But by the end of the season, I hope to be right there and able to play in the NHL next season.”
Heading into Friday’s first of back-to-back road games against the Prince George Cougars, Jones has recorded nine goals, 36 assists and a plus-33 rating in 51 games. The numbers would likely be higher if he had not gone to Ufa, Russia during the Christmas holidays and guided the U.S. team to a gold medal at the world junior championships.
Scoring-wise, Jones has set few personal targets, but it’s clear that he has his heart set on being No. 1 overall this summer. And, he welcomes the pressure that goes along with being pegged as the top pick.
“You want to be the best in the world,” said Jones. “That’s my goal, at least. So, seeing that (top ranking), it just makes me work even harder.”
Although many scouts are naturally attracted by the rearguard’s six-foot-four, 208-pound frame, Jones attributes much of his success to speed on the ice.
“My skating is a big part of my game,” he said. “It helps me do a lot of things, make smart decisions. The quicker you can get to the puck, the more time you have to make a play out there.
“Though the transition game, that helps me as well. I can jump up in the play to make some offence.”
Jones has a chance to become an NHLer after just this first season of junior and spending the previous two campaigns with the U.S. National Team Development program. But Portland interim coach Travis Green, whose 49-9-3 team leads the WHL and is a strong contender for a Memorial Cup berth, said the youngster is definitely not letting the hype go to his head.
Ultimately, NHL clubs must project how Jones will develop his game in the future. But Jones, a Plano, Texas, native who grew up in Colorado and also lived briefly in Toronto while his father played for the Raptors, said he has come a long way in his development in a short time.
“When I look back at how my game was at the beginning of the year, it took me a little bit of time to adapt to this pace and the type of play,” he said. “But for where I’m a right now, I think I’ve developed tremendously, and I’ve matured a lot throughout this season.”
Winterhawks winger Ty Rattie, a second-round draft choice (22nd overall) of the St. Louis Blues in 2011, said Jones has remained quietly confident and played well, despite the pressure of being a potential top pick.
“He knows he’s really good, but he doesn’t show it,” said Rattie.
He attributed Jones’ success to natural athleticism inherited from his famous father. Jones can’t explain why he never developed much interest in basketball, preferring instead the speed and physicality of hockey.
But Rattie believes his teammate could excel on the hardwood if he set his mind to do so.
“I’m sure Seth could be in the NBA if he wanted to be, or he could be a (Major League Baseball) player if he wanted to be,” said Rattie.
He is also certain that the blue-liner will excel in the pro ranks.
“He’s going to be an NHLer for a long time,” said Rattie.