NEWARK, N.J. — In a basement hallway of the Prudential Center, home of the NHL fraft on Sunday, Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz was talking to a reporter, extolling the virtues of having drafted defenseman Seth Jones fourth overall, when a member of the professional hockey world interrupted to congratulate him and shake his hand.
“You hit the home run today, eh, bro?” the well-wisher said.
“I guess,” Trotz responded. “That’s what everybody’s telling me.”
Then Trotz turned back to the reporter.
“I’ve had reactions like that walking down here,” Trotz said. “We’re excited. He could solidify a pretty good defense for the next decade if we choose so.”
Hours after Jones, the top-rated player in the draft, fell to them, Predators representatives still basked in the afterglow of their good fortune. Among those blissfully delighted were general manager David Poile and new assistant coach Phil Housley, one of the top-scoring defenseman in NHL history.
“Comparisons have been made from Seth Jones to Chris Pronger,” Poile said of the player who won both the Norris and Hart Trophies in 2000 as the league’s top defenseman and MVP. “Well, how good would that be if that ever turned out? That would be fabulous. Phil’s got to be like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding? I just got this job and now you’ve got Seth Jones. This David Poile, he’s good.’”
Housley, who coached Jones this past year on the US team that won gold at the World Junior Championships, could hardly contain his excitement.
“I just can’t screw it up,” Housley said. “I’ve never been this excited . . . The future’s very bright for Nashville.”
Nonetheless, the unexpected blessing carries with it some serious questions and unforeseen consequences. Poile said he entered the draft “99 percent” sure that he would draft a forward for scoring-challenged Nashville. In addition, the team already possesses loads of young talent on defense, including Ryan Ellis, the 11th overall pick in the 2009 draft who struggled to compete for a roster spot last season.
Trotz, who played defense during his junior career, found the bright side of the embarrassment of riches, which includes captain Shea Weber, a two-time runner-up for the Norris.
“Pretty good, eh, isn’t it?” he said. “Our greatest success has been when we’ve been really strong on defense. If you look at our greatest strength as an organization — and probably our strongest teams — have probably been (Ryan) Suter, Weber, (Roman) Josi, (Kevin) Klein, those top four playing the majority of the time. It really can make it tough on the opposition. We may be in that situation again. You lose a player like Ryan Suter (who signed with Minnesota last summer as a free agent), that’s hard to replace. This might be pretty close. It’ll be nice.”
So soon after making the pick, Poile still believes that Ellis has a place on the team. Still, the Predators’ depth chart of six defensemen has little wiggle room. Add Jones to Weber, Josi (signed this offseason to a seven-year contract), Klein, veteran Hal Gill and Victor Bartley, who was awarded with a two-year deal for a break-out 2012-13 season, and there isn’t much room in the top six for Ellis or Mattias Ekholm.
On multiple occasions Sunday, Poile made fairly forceful statements about what he thinks Jones’ chances of earning a roster spot are, saying, “He deserves every chance to play,” and also, “We’re going to give him every chance to make our team coming out of training camp.”
If Jones does not play with the Predators, Nashville must return him to his junior team, Portland of the Western Hockey League.
Poile also said he feels no pressure to move any of his young defensemen.
Regardless, the need for scoring remains and Nashville must address it in free agency or via trade. Adding to that need is what it sounds like is the end of wing Sergei Kostitsyn’s tenure with the team. On Sunday night, Poile did not sound as if he desired the return of Kostitsyn, the Predators’ former leading scorer who has entered contract negotiations with Omsk of Russia’s KHL. For his part, Trotz said he likes the competition for roster spots, thinks it has been lacking and will improve the level of play.
The fact that Jones does seem ready for the NHL underlies these issues. One reason, at 18, he appears to be capable of making the jump is his pedigree. His father, Popeye Jones, was a professional athlete with a successful NBA career. As a result, Seth was surrounded by pro athletes growing up.
“It’s always been what he’s seen behind the scenes with professional athletes,” Popeye Jones said. “It’s the work you must put in. It’s a certain responsibility and the work has got to be top-notch every day. You’ve got to come to work. For him to see guys like (Dirk) Nowitzki and (Jason) Terry and Jason Kidd, seeing how to be a pro behind the scenes and how hard they work at their craft, he’s kind of already started to do that and he’ll take that to another level.”
In some ways, Seth Jones’ jump from junior to the NHL is not as hard as it is would be from the NCAA, where the schedule is about half that of major junior teams. Jones already is accustomed to 20-hour bus rides halfway across the continent and 70-game regular seasons.
But his father’s background helps, too, he said.
“I mean, just growing up watching, and my dad was a professional athlete, not in hockey, but he knows about the travel and the schedule and stuff like that,” Seth Jones said. “I do a little bit, but I think you can’t really say you do until you’ve played there.”
Popeye Jones also was pleased that his son landed in Nashville because it has developed so many top-end defensemen in its short history.
“It makes me really happy because that’s another message is learning how to play the game the right way and I think Seth already does that,” Popeye Jones said. “Now it’s ‘take it to another level in Nashville.’ They develop defensemen the right way. It’s always been my message to be a team player, to play the game the right way and he’s always done that and he’ll continue to do that.”
All involved hope that that statement becomes true.