Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin are used to hearing their names in the same sentence.
As three of the top prospects heading into this year’s NHL draft, the teens have shared the spotlight for months — if not years — so it’s no surprise they’re the talk of the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup.
The trio sat shoulder-to-shoulder at a table in the bowels of the Credit Union Centre this week, answering questions about the Canadian Hockey League championship, their futures and even how they met.
It’s a good thing they get along, because Jones, MacKinnon and Drouin will be seeing a lot more of each other in the coming weeks.
Projected to be taken high — possibly in the top three spots — in Newark next month, Jones of the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, and MacKinnon and Drouin, both of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Halifax Mooseheads, headline a Memorial Cup that includes at least eight potential first-round picks.
A big defenceman whose name is expected to be called when the Colorado Avalanche step to the podium with the first pick June 30, Jones says it’s difficult not to think ahead to the draft, even with Saturday’s mouth-watering game between Portland and Halifax on the horizon.
“It obviously lingers a bit in your mind,” said the 18-year-old, who is ranked as the top North American skater by NHL Central Scouting. “The draft is a month and a little bit away so it’s human nature to think about that kind of stuff but at the same time you’ve got to think about the now and the present and helping your team win a Memorial Cup.”
But he adds: “As a 17- or 18-year-old you want to know what your future holds in front of you.”
MacKinnon, who slipped to No. 2 in the draft rankings this season, says having the top three prospects in one place only puts more focus on their NHL futures.
“It’s talked about so much now leading up to it,” the 17-year-old centre said at Thursday’s media availability. “There’s so much hype around it right now, especially with the three of us in the tournament. For us we’re just going to try to keep our mind in the present and focus on winning now.
“We’ve had a fun year and it’s been exciting. I haven’t thought about the draft too much and I don’t think I’m going to start now.”
The almost-forgotten man in the trio is Drouin, who is ranked the No. 3 North American skater. A five-foot-11, 176-pound left-winger from Ste-Agathe, Que., Drouin had the best statistical season of the bunch in 2012-13, compiling 41 goals and 64 assists in just 49 games. The 18-year-old added 12 goals and 23 assists in 17 playoff games and was also one of Canada’s best players at the world junior hockey championship, a tournament won by Jones’s American team.
“It’s all about the Cup right now and that’s our only goal,” Drouin said. “Every team here is trying to win the Memorial Cup (but) for sure the hype of the draft is getting closer.”
The six-foot-four, 206-pound Jones was born in Plano, Texas, but picked up the game while his father, former NBA player Popeye Jones, was a member of the Denver Nuggets.
Jones says that while the 10-day round-robin tournament, which also includes the host Saskatoon Blades and the Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights, could impact the draft rankings, the focus remains on the CHL title.
“These scouts have watched you play multiple times this year,” said Jones, who had 14 goals and 42 assists in 56 games in the regular season. “It could hurt you, it could bring you down a bit but at the same time you just want to go out there and do what you can to help your team win. I think what these scouts want to see is winners.”
Added Drouin: “A lot of scouts have been watching me the whole year and this tournament can maybe help you or maybe not help you. It’s more a team game right now. You won’t be able to beat teams by yourself here and I think everyone knows that.”
All three have had to deal with increased attention this season, including numerous media requests and getting recognized almost everywhere they go. It’s a level fame they will have to get used to.
“I think all three of us would be lying if we didn’t think this year was pretty hectic media-wise. But it’s been a joy, it’s been fun,” said Jones, who added five goals and 10 assists in 21 WHL playoff games. “There’s a lot of other kids that would want to be in our position and I wouldn’t trade my position for anything else in the world.”
Drouin says playing with MacKinnon has made the experience easier.
“We’ve been living the same thing,” he said. “It’s fun to have to one guy that has the same feeling as you, he has the same pressure and that kind of stuff. We talk about it when there are hard times a little bit.”
MacKinnon, who had 32 goals and 43 assists in 49 regular-season games before adding 33 points (11G, 22A) in the playoffs, met Jones at a hockey camp in Los Angeles a few summers ago and says that the two bonded.
“We both wanted to make the NHL one day like every other kid but I wouldn’t have thought in a million years it would end up like this — both at the Memorial Cup, playing against him Saturday night,” said the five-foot-11, 176-pound MacKinnon, who grew up in Sidney Crosby’s hometown of Cole Harbour, N.S. “It’s kind of funny the way things turned out but it’s been really great.”
And even though the draft is only weeks away, MacKinnon has a hard time wrapping his head around the fact that his NHL dream, and those of Jones and Drouin, will be realized very soon.
“Thinking about playing in the NHL is kind of a distant thing,” he said. “It feels a little surreal right now thinking I could eventually play (there). Going into the future, I don’t know what it holds but hopefully the three of us can have good careers.”
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