Teenager Jones excited about future with Predators, USA hockey

Seth Jones, Nashville's first-round draft pick last summer, just finished a long, grueling but ultimately fulfilling campaign with the Predators and USA hockey. And after a little summer break, the 19-year-old prodigy can't wait to start things up again, writes John Manasso.

Defenseman Seth Jones (left/right) was equal parts proficient, prodigious and physical as a teenage rookie with the Predators, tallying 25 points (19 assists) in 77 games.

Don McPeak/Mike Strasinger / USA TODAY Sports

Seth Jones wasn't planning on returning home so soon.

The 19-year-old Predators defenseman, coming off his rookie season with Nashville, was the top-scoring blueliner at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships through the preliminary round.

He envisioned three more wins and a title for his U.S. team. If all went according to plan and his father's team, the NBA's Indiana Pacers, advanced to the 2014 NBA Finals, maybe, Jones thought, he would attend some of the games when he got back.

Alas, after Team USA's 4-3 loss to the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, Jones (one assist on Thursday; 10 points in eight games) will return from Minsk on Friday. He's now free to catch the NBA's Eastern Conference finals, where his father Popeye, an assistant coach with the Pacers, will help Frank Vogel's coaching staff attempt to knock off the two-time defending champion Miami Heat (series tied at 1).

For Seth, the quarterfinal loss punctuates the end of a long campaign. His next hockey won't come until September, when the Predators open training camp.

Reached by telephone from Belarus earlier in the week, Jones was hopeful that playing for the U.S. senior national team (he has competed at the World Junior Championships) would benefit him entering next season.

"It's just more hockey," he said. "I think the more hockey you play, obviously, the more experienced you'll be. I've had the chance to play quite a few international tournaments now. This is the highest level I've been playing at to this point, but I think it will definitely help me. You always get confidence in tournaments like this and kind of transfer it into next season."

Jones has plenty of reason for confidence. Through the preliminary round, he was averaging 25:21 of ice time per night, the most on the United States, which featured something of a younger-generation squad. He also finished with two goals and nine assists while playing for U.S. coach Peter Laviolette, who has also been hired as the Predators' new coach. The club will formally welcome Laviolette on June 1.

The Worlds has proven to be a worthwhile experience for a number of Preds blueliners. Four of their top six defensemen have competed in the tournament, with only Shea Weber and Michael Del Zotto not present. Switzerland's Roman Josi, who was named the top player at last year's tournament, ranked behind Jones in the preliminary round in points (seven); and Canada's Ryan Ellis ranked sixth (five points).

Both Ellis and Jones scored game-winning goals in overtime for their respective teams. Mattias Ekholm, playing for Sweden, also logged plenty of ice time, according to Jones.

Jones likes playing on the international-sized ice surface, which is larger than most NHL arenas. One of his strengths lies with skating ability. It's a primary reason why Predators GM David Poile -- who doubles as Team USA's general manager -- seriously considered putting Jones, the teenager, on the veteran-laded U.S. squad for the Sochi Winter Olympics (February 2014).

"I'm a pretty decent skater," he said, demurring a bit, a result of his modest nature. "I think that plays into my game, for sure. There's definitely more room out there to make play. ... It seems like there's a couple of extra feet every time you have the puck."

For Jones, the tournament represented another opportunity to grow. When the Predators were playing New Jersey late in the season, former coach Barry Trotz spoke of how Jones did not yet possess the strength to defend certain players -- like the Devils' old-man-strong Jaromir Jagr -- on a shift-by-shift basis.

Fast forward to Thursday, as Jones was often on the ice at the same time as Jagr, who played for the Czechs and earned an assist on the eventual game-winning goal (second period).

The United States lost, in large part, because of a five-minute-major charging penalty taken by captain Justin Abdelkader (Detroit Red Wings). Czech scored twice on that power play and three times for the game with the man advantage.

The U.S. trailed 4-1 late in the game, but the Tampa Bay Lightning's Tyler Johnson scored twice 13 seconds apart, starting with 1:10 left in regulation. The first goal came on a 6-on-4 advantage. Jones made a beautiful cross-ice pass, his second assist of the game, and Johnson one-timed it in.

Jones was also on the ice in the final seconds, as the Americans made a furious push to tie the game. Earlier in the week, he downplayed his responsibilities during the tournament.

"It's been fine," he said. "I'm pretty comfortable on special teams. I'm getting the opportunity to play power play and penalty kill here and a lot of 5-on-5. It's been great. I'm grateful for that. Like I said, I feel comfortable playing all situations. The coaches are putting me out there. We've built a little bit of trust out there between each other; so it's been good."

U.S. assistant coach Phil Housley also works for the Predators. Jones said he enjoyed playing under Laviolette, although the two had yet to speak much about their future time with Nashville.

"(Laviolette has) been great, I really like him," Jones says. "I really like his style. He's a great motivator. He knows what to say to get us going for the game or during the timeout or intermission, or whatever the case may be."

Upon returning, Jones can take a break from hockey for a while. He has not been able to watch any of his father's Pacers games in Minsk, due to the time-zone differential. Jones said he would check scores in the morning, upon waking up, and then trade texts with his father.

It's been a crazy season for Indiana, but a trip to the NBA finals would represent something both father and son could share.

"I hope I can go to a few games in Indiana," he said, wishing the Pacers will reach the next round. "I've got two buddies who would probably like to go, as well, so I'll make a trip down there."