Injuries to Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm have put Nashville's entire second defense pairing on the shelf with no clear timetable of a return. In their absence, Seth Jones has been thrust with the task of replacing their minutes and assignments, but he hasn't looked out of place doing so. While Shea Weber and Roman Josi have also been working in high gear, they were already two of the most utilized defensemen in the NHL.
On the heels of a five-game point streak that ended on Thursday, Jones has equaled his goal total from last year and is only five points away from doing the same for his point total. Though he's had some games he'd like to forget, (which may have caused some to cover their eyes as his role has increased) generally he's been a solid player, especially for one so young. It isn't shocking to see him take to new responsibilities so well.
Looking at his season, we can break it down into three parts. The 40 games up to, and including, Ellis' injury, the 13 games between that and Ekholm's injury, and the games after Ekholm's injury. Overall statement of small sample size in this set of data, but we can still use these as a bit of a comparison. (Stats via War on Ice. Since Jones also plays a role on the PP and PK, these reflect all situations, adjusted for score.)
|Pre Ellis Injury|
|Post Ellis Injury, Pre Ekholm Injury|
|Post Ellis & Ekholm Injury|
Through the games that Ellis was out, Jones' ice time and defensive zone starts increased, but his overall production didn't drop by much. It's impossible to really draw a hard conclusion from the two games the team has played without Ekholm, but in the for what it's worth column, both Tampa Bay and Winnipeg are two of the best possession teams in the league. Jones was one of the best possession players against the Jets, and above 50% against the Lightning, despite taking tons of defensive zone draws in each.
If you're thinking his play was helped by playing alongside Mattias Ekholm for a bit... you may not be wrong, per se. But, let's face it, Ekholm is a much better option for a defense partner than either Anton Volchenkov or Victor Bartley. Apart, the American and the Swede post a 54.9 and 55.7 CF%, respectively. Together? 56.5. So they may play slightly better as a pair, but they're also doing just fine on their own. In other words, Jones isn't a passenger benefiting from another player's good play.
This shouldn't be a surprise though. Sure, there have been plenty of times this season where Jones has looked flat-out bad, but it's important to remember that he hasn't even been 20 years old for six months; and he's only halfway through his second NHL season. In spite of all of that, and essentially being utilized as a bottom pair defenseman, he's vastly outperforming that role.
The chart speaks for itself. Seth Jones is a near top-pair defenseman who just happens to be on a team deep enough to let him work in a bottom-pair role. That's not a bad thing at all. Let Josi and Weber shutdown the opposition and eat the heavy minutes while Ekholm and Ellis keep the puck in the offensive zone. Meanwhile, Jones can pick up experience and develop his game against lesser competition. That's a point Josh Cooper made yesterday, because apparently we share the same brain sometimes.
Of course, that's not to say it's all sunshine and roses. As mentioned plenty of times above (and throughout the year) Jones is still only 20. He's still going to make plenty of mistakes, especially in tough situations. Take Nikita Kucherov's tying goal on Tuesday.
Jones gathers the puck behind his net and starts to skate away with it. Ondrej Palat applies pressure, and Jones blindly throws a backhand up the boards, most likely in an attempt to get it out of the zone. The only problem is it never reaches neutral. Andrej Sustr cuts it off, and starts the sequence that ends with a Lightning goal.
With Palat bearing down on him and Mike Fisher and Viktor Stalberg bunched in the faceoff circle, it's hard to fault Jones for electing not to attempt a high-risk, defensive zone pass when the Bolts are still in pretty good position. (Fisher and Stalberg are smack in the middle of a triangle of Tampa players.) However, if you're going to go for the rim out of the zone, you better make sure that the puck gets out and/or there are wingers to support it. It didn't and there weren't, and you know the rest of the story. Full credit to Palat for the nifty pass and Kucherov for batting it out of the air, but the Preds were scrambling to get back on defense because of that turnover.
That may seem like nitpicking, though, for an otherwise generally solid stretch of play over the last few weeks. Ekholm may or may not return tonight against the New Jersey Devils, and Ryan Ellis' return is looking less and less likely to come anytime soon. (UPDATE: After this post was scheduled, both Ekholm and Ellis participated in Saturday's morning skate. Ekholm is expected to play against New Jersey.) With the nightmare pairing of Victor Bartley and Anthony Bitetto essentially replacing the two injured defensemen, there is going to be a lot of slack that needs to be picked up in the short term. Jones has already showed that he's up for the task.