NASHVILLE – After playing nine seasons with the Nashville Predators, Kevin Klein is someone who holds a pretty good perspective on his fellow defensemen.
He was drafted by the organization the same year as Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, both of whom earned All-Star status in Suter’s final season with the organization in 2011-12. Generally, around the NHL, the consensus was that Weber and Suter formed the league’s top defense pair that season.
When it comes to the newest Predators defenseman, Seth Jones, Klein is something of an elder statesman. This week, Jones, who was the fourth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft but who sat atop the pre-draft rankings, earned a battlefield promotion to the Predators’ top pair with Weber after Roman Josi went down with a concussion.
So after one game, Klein was asked a loaded question: Can Weber and Jones someday be as good as Weber and Suter once were?
Klein did not back down.
“Yeah, you see he’s a big body,” Klein said of Jones. “He skates really well, Jonesy, and he can definitely make great plays out there, too. You hope he’s as good or better than Sutes” — a finalist for the Norris Trophy (best defenseman) last season — “Sutes is a great player. If he’s as good as Sutes, then that’s saying something. He’s got a lot to prove until we can say that but he’s on the right track.”
On Thursday, in a 4-0 loss to Toronto, Jones showed how much he still has to prove. His 26:29 of time on ice led the team for a third straight game but he finished minus-2. While crediting Jones’ performance on the power play, Nashville coach Barry Trotz said Jones committed a “rookie mistake” on Toronto’s critical second goal with nine seconds left in the second period. Jones is adjusting to playing against some of the NHL’s top players and on Thursday the Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk struck twice while Jones was on the ice.
Nonetheless, in some ways, Jones is making the leap to the NHL at warp speed compared to Weber and Suter. Weber was drafted in 2003 but did not play his first full season in the NHL until 2006. Suter, also drafted in ’03, did not play his first full season until 2005.
“He can skate,” Weber said of Jones. “You look at how big and rangy he is and he walks out on the ice and he’s fluid and he moves all over the ice so easily. It’s going to help him along the way here.”
From the time Jones was drafted, he was being asked about the possibility of playing with Weber, one of the world’s best defensemen, but Weber and Jones hardly played together at all during the preseason. Jones sees it as a blessing and also as an opportunity to play with someone from whom he can learn (he played with another rookie, Mattias Ekholm, in his first two games).
“I never would’ve thought I’d be in this position,” Jones said. “It’s awesome to play with one of the best defensemen and I couldn’t ask for a better position than I’m in right now.”
Depending on how fast Jones can continue on his upward arc — and if he can reach the level of an elite NHL defenseman — that also could be when the Predators could become a contender once again for the Western Conference title and Clarence Campbell Trophy.
“I think we’re a team that’s back in the mix and how this team how grows this year will say that,” Trotz said. “I will say this honestly: We feel that we can get back in the playoffs and be back in that hunt and if we get in the playoffs we’re going to be a hard team to play because we’re a lot harder than we have been.”
It’s rare for an NHL team to be able to pair two defensemen as big as Weber (6-foot-4, 233 pounds) and Jones (6-foot-4, 205). Weber spoke of the wingspan that both players have, which allows them to cover more ground and get to more pucks.
Klein talked about what it must look like to opposing forwards.
“They’re both big bodies,” he said. “As forwards, it would probably be a little imposing going down on those two. They move the puck pretty well. They skate pretty well and they both have big-time shots so it’s fun to watch them play.”