Recapping Seth Jones’ impressive debut season with the Blackhawks

Those who had doubts about Jones’ on-ice ability — ourselves included — were silenced by his play.

After two subpar seasons in Columbus, there was ample concern around the Blackhawks’ acquisition of Seth Jones last summer. While some of those negative points still exist — namely Jones’ contract and the Blackhawks general lack of status as a contender — none of that negates the bounce-back performance that Jones had on the ice last season.

Because the Columbus system wasn’t impacting any of his defensive teammates, Jones poorer performances with the Blue Jackets looked like more of an issue with Jones’ play. But unleashing Jones to do whatever he wanted — and it did seem like he did his own thing regardless of what King’s system was in place — allowed for him to put up his best performance in years. It certainly should have quieted those who were so negative about him as a player.

Spoiler: It did for me.

So let’s take an analytical look at how Jones performed this season.

Defensively, Jones put up, arguably, the best numbers among Blackhawks defensemen. His expected even-strength defense goals above average — a stat that attempts to assign a value to each player’s defensive contributions — was 5.1 and that’s good for 94th percentile in the league.

A brief guide to hockey’s advanced statistics

Much of that had to do with how much Jones excelled at getting the puck out of the defensive zone and, as a result, spending the least amount of time there among Blackhawks defensemen. His 10.16 zone exits per 60 was in the 75th percentile, his 16.8 exits with possession was in the 93rd percentile, and his 8.33 carry-out exits per 60 was in the 95th percentile. Zone clears were well below average — just 1.82 per 60 — but that was primarily because Jones always tried to pass or carry the puck out of the zone. Considering how terrible the Blackhawks were at exiting the zone, Jones’ aptitude there was a huge part of why he was successful at limiting opponents zone time.

That ability resulted in Jones having relatively strong shot suppression numbers. At 5-on-5 play, Jones had the second lowest rates of shot attempts against (55.46 per 60), shots on goal against (30.6 per 60), and high-danger chances against (9.56 per 60) among Blackhawks defensemen who played 300 minutes. While Jones didn’t block a whole lot of shots — 4.55 was third lowest on the Blackhawks — he was also one of the better defenders in terms of getting his stick in passing or shooting lanes and had the second best takeaway rate at 1.1 per 60. The shot suppression numbers aren’t anything to write home about when compared to the league, but they’re strong when compared to the Blackhawks as a team.

One area that Jones didn’t perform as well as he has historically was in preventing zone entries, but this likely had more to do with the fact that the Blackhawks systematically didn’t defend the blue line. He allowed a 65% carry-in against (18th percentile) and those resulted in a chance against at a rate of 4.94 per 60 (7th percentile). Again, the Blackhawks were “skating backwards” in terms of blue line defense, meaning they allowed a lot of zone entries against and those more often than not resulted in a scoring chance against. Jones has been pretty good in this area in the past, so it can be chalked up as more of a team-wide issue than one specific to Jones. He was better at forcing opponents to dump the puck in (86th percentile) and at retrieving the puck with no scoring chances against (74th percentile).

Offensively, Jones finished the season with 51 points (5 G, 46 A) in 78 games, a top-20 points-per-game rate of 0.65 among defensemen who played at least 40 games. Still, despite those strong results, Jones still underperformed when it came to offensive production at 5-on-5, where he was just in the 17th percentile. Most of this is due to his finishing — he had just five goals thanks to a 2.58 shooting percentage — but his primary assist rate of 0.53 was just in the 43rd percentile in the league.

However, most of this will likely regress positively, especially his goal totals, as he had a strong shot rate (5.69 shots per 60, 69th percentile) and scoring chances rate (3.11 per 60, 93rd percentile). A lot of those shots were off the rush rather than in the offensive zone — he was in just the 39th percentile for in-zone shots — but that’s due to the Blackhawks overall performance with puck possession and in the offensive zone.

(Keep in mind that these numbers are all during 5-on-5 play, with the team’s power-play struggles detailed in the article referenced below.)

How did the Blackhawks go an entire season with no defenseman scoring a PPG?

Jones also had primary shot assist rate of 5.73 per 60 — good for the 61st percentile — and a general shot setup rate of 6.51 per 60 (94th percentile). If Jones continues to shoot and pass at that volume and success level, his offensive numbers are bound to be as good or better in the future. The only category that would need improvement was his scoring chance assist percentage, which was just in the 31st percentile for the league, but that was likely affected the Blackhawks being collectively subpar at generating scoring chances last season.

Jones continued to perform excellently in terms of offensive transition, being in the top 10 or 20 percent of the league in practically all zone entry categories, something not surprising considering Jones’ skating abilities. His 10.68 zone entry per 60 rate was in the 96th percentile and his 47.6% success rate of controlled entries with possession was in the 82nd percentile. It didn’t matter if Jones passed (94th percentile) or carried (93rd percentile) the puck into the zone, he was excellent at moving the puck into the attacking end of the ice.

Additionally, his neutral zone assist rate – 8.21 per 60 – was as close to being the best in the league as you can get and his rush offense (7.55 per 60) was as well. The latter two stats are probably inflated a but due to Jones being on ice with Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane, who are two of the best players in the league in terms of carrying the puck into the zone and generating a scoring chance. Still, there’s no disputing that Jones is one of the best defensemen in the league at traversing the neutral zone.

Ultimately, Jones did well offensively this season in terms of results, but he probably could have done even better with more puck luck and a higher quality team/system to help out his natural ability. Defensively, he was much better than his previous few seasons, even if he had some slumps throughout the season.

Looking ahead to what’s next for Jones

After this season, those who doubted Jones should be quieted. Yes, his contract is still an issue: he turns 28 on Oct. 3 and is just starting an 8-year contract on a team that’s in the first year of a rebuild — but that shouldn’t be held against him as a player. If Kyle Davidson could trade him, he should try to recoup assets that would be more beneficial to the Blackhawks during their rebuild, but that’s an unlikely scenario and so the Blackhawks will have to make the best of the situation.

The good news is that the situation with Jones, as a player, is that he showed this season that he is definitely a top-pairing defensemen with strong two-way capabilities, even if it wasn’t perfect and there is room to get even better. The fact that Jones was able to rebound so well without a legitimate NHL coach and a shallow team hints that he could actually be the No. 1 defensemen that the Blackhawks thought they were always getting, even if Jones doesn’t fit neatly into the rebuild picture.