Jones-ing for a No. 1 defenseman: A Q&A with The Cannon on Seth Jones

We reached out to one of our sibling sites for more info on the Blackhawks’ most controversial offseason move.

It’s been several weeks now since the Chicago Blackhawks made the biggest noise in the offseason acquisition market by sending former top-ten pick Adam Boqvist and draft picks to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Seth Jones.

With the initial hype now dwindling, we thought it’d be a good time to revisit the move and bring in the perspective of someone who’s more familiar with Jones’ play, havjacking watched him for several seasons. With that in mine, we sought out Pale Dragon, the site manager of The Cannon, which handles all things Columbus in the SB Nation family of websites. Their answer to our questions follow below, lightly edited for clarity:

1. What did you see as the biggest reason for Jones’ decline in play over the last few seasons, especially in 2021?

I think the biggest factor was a change in scheme/philosophy by (coach John Tortorella) and his staff. From 2016-2019, the team had a “safe is death” mindset that encouraged risk-taking in the defensive zone to create rushes the other way. The pairing of Jones and Zach Werenski thrived in this environment. Their 5-on-5 numbers were stellar.

In the fall of 2019, in response to losing important players such as Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin, the scheme became much more conservative. Whereas the skaters could take chances knowing that Bob could make saves on odd man rushes the other way, with Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins in net they wanted to limit the amount of high-danger chances against. In 2019-20 (and particularly in December and January of that season), the team was highly successful at this. This meant, however, that they played low-event hockey. It also meant that they were more likely to concede zone entries, focusing instead on driving those skaters to the sides.

In 2021, the loss of defensively sound forwards like Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, and Alexander Wennberg contributed to the team no longer being successful at preventing high danger chances, while still allowing zone entries, and way more shot attempts than they created themselves.

I hate to speculate, but I also wonder if Jones had COVID. We know that a group of Columbus players tested positive in November, but there was never confirmation of which ones. Jones looked a step slow and the heavy minutes he played seemed to take more of a toll. This was very unusual for him.

2. Everything we’ve seen from the analytics community offers negative reviews on Jones. Are there any explanations (outside of the ones detailed above) for what may have caused those poor numbers?

While that scheme change in 2019 was successful on a team level, it depressed Jones’ on-ice numbers. There was more action in the defensive zone than in previous seasons, with the forward group missing a playmaker like Panarin and, therefore, producing fewer shots and goals for. Jones also played heavier minutes than most, and against the best lines of the opponents.

Now, that being said, these same factors would apply to Werenski and his numbers in 2021 were still better than Jones’. No matter how you cut it, it was a bad year relative to the rest of Jones’ career, though not as bad relative to the league as the numbers would suggest. If you’re going to point to any single metric and say “Jones was one of the five worst defensemen in the league,” that’s unfair.

This article by Charlie O’Connor and Alison Lukan of The Athletic does a great job of breaking down the stats vs. eye test disparity with Jones. Alison is, of course, a master of data-driven analysis, and has also watched every game Jones has played over the last 5.5 seasons.

3. What are the things that Jones does well?

Jones is a physical specimen. The Blue Jackets had a staff member — Nelson Ayotte — with the title of director of high performance, who tracked the players’ cardiovascular fitness, strength, speed, jumping ability, etc. He said that Jones was off the chart for everything. He played 60 minutes in that five-overtime marathon against Tampa in the bubble and didn’t show any fatigue in the subsequent games. With his reach, it feels like he can block off half the ice by himself when defending against a rush. He’s a smooth skater with good breakaway speed. He has the puck skills and shot to be an effective power play quarterback (the CBJ PP has been awful for years, but Jones wasn’t the biggest problem there).

One small thing that you’ll notice in a big way is how good Jones is during 3-on-3 overtime. Put him out there with Patrick Kane for the opening faceoff and you’ll have a lot of quick victories. There were 17 overtime victories in the two years Jones spent with Panarin. For a wild card team, those points matter.

The final strength for Jones is his leadership. Had he signed an extension in Columbus, he certainly would have been made captain. He’s not too vocal or demonstrative, but he’s a steady presence who leads by example. He learned a lot from his father (former pro basketball player Popeye Jones) about how to behave as a professional athlete, and the hard work required. This can rub off on the young players in the locker room.

4. For an optimistic view, could we cling to some hope that 2021 was an aberration because it was a weird season for everyone and Jones is actually much better than that?

Oh, absolutely.

Whether in Columbus or elsewhere, I was certain that Jones could bounce back in a big way. He has too much talent and is still at a prime age for him to continue to decline to 2021 levels. I think the new team, new city, new contract, and getting to play with his brother will energize him to play well. If nothing else, sharing the ice with a better forward group will help his counting stats. Do I think he’ll ever get back to his 2018 level, when he finished 4th in Norris voting? No. But I think he has several years left as a clear No. 1 defenseman (i.e. top 32 in the league).

Will he play up to the level of his contract, and into his mid-30s? I’m less certain about that. In the short term, however, as Chicago looks to make one more push with this roster? He’s a great addition.

5. Anything else we should know about him?

Jones is a player with a lot of talent who doesn’t take it for granted. He’s humble, hard-working, and a natural leader. If you can set aside his contract and the cost to acquire him, I think you’re going to appreciate watching him play.