Published November 20, 2014
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- At 16 years old, Seth Jones isn't just the youngest member of Team USA here at this week's national junior evaluation camp, he's clearly the most intriguing.
Even his teammates -- including four-time gold medalist and NHL first-round draft pick Jack Campbell -- are taken by the skill and talent the young defenseman has shown.
Said Jones: "Right after the game (Thursday against Sweden), I sat down in the locker room and he (Campbell) came to me and said a fan wants you to sign this (puck), so I signed it and I walked out and he was standing there with the puck and said, 'I'm going to sell this on eBay when you make it to the show.' I tried to take it from him and he wouldn't let me."
The way Jones is going, Campbell might have made a pretty shrewd investment.
Jones, already 6-foot-4 and 175 pounds, played 37 games with the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-17 team last season, where he had 4 goals and 17 assists. He also got into 20 games with the U-18 team, where he had 10 assists. And to top off his season, he had 3 assists in six games to help the U.S. win the gold medal at the World Under-18 Championship in Germany.
Now, he's already survived the first round of cuts for the U.S. team that will go to the 2012 World Junior Championship, a tournament geared toward 19-year-olds, most of whom are top prospects already drafted by NHL teams.
And did we mention he won't turn 17 until October? And won't be eligible for the NHL draft until 2013?
"He's a terrific young player," one NHL general manager who already has scouted Jones told NHL.com. "He was great last year in the Under-18s in Germany. He just got better and better, and he's been great here. … It's fantastic. It's great to see that kid play. He's fantastic."
U.S. coach Dean Blais also has been impressed. He's played Jones in all situations, from the point on the power play to the triangle on a few 5-on-3 penalty kills. And never has he disappointed.
"This kid is big and strong and smart way beyond his years," Blais said. "He's good down low, he's strong. He certainly doesn't play like he's a '94 (born)."
Blais said Jones has been so impressive, the coaching staff needs to keep reminding themselves of just how old he is.
"We talked about that today," he said. "We keep saying, 'This kid is only 16.'"
Jones' skill and athleticism isn't a surprise considering his background -- only that he plies his trade on the ice, rather than the hardwood.
The family moved to Toronto and Boston and finally to Denver as Popeye's career took him to six different clubs in 11 seasons. It was during Popeye's season with the Nuggets that Jones' oldest son, Justin, wanted to play hockey like his friends.
"My kids were living in the suburbs and my oldest son, Justin, became friends with kids in school and said he wanted to play ice hockey," Popeye Jones told NHL.com. "I said you want to do what? You want to play? Me not knowing anything about it, or my wife Amy, not knowing anything about it, but me being a huge sports guy, I said sure, let's go to the store and get some equipment. Seth is 4 years old at the time, just tagging along, so we get some stuff for him, too. He wanted to be like big brother, and he just fell in love with the game and really loved to skate."
Popeye grew up in Tennessee playing baseball, football and basketball, but hockey was a foreign concept to him. So like any smart person, he sought out advice from someone with a bit of knowledge about the game.
"I didn't know anything about the game, I didn't know anything about how to make kids better," Popeye Jones said. "At the Pepsi Center in Denver, I ran into Joe Sakic and had an interesting conversation. I introduced myself. I knew who he was, and just mentioned to him my kids want to play hockey, what do I need to do. He said looking at you, your kids are going to be really big and they're going to be good athletes. You just have to make sure they know how to skate."
Popeye took Sakic's advice and started getting Justin and Seth -- and youngest son Caleb, now a 12-year-old hockey player -- skating lessons.
"I started off with skating lessons," Seth Jones told NHL.com. "I didn't even pick up a hockey stick or buy hockey gear for one year. I took skating lessons. It was a figure skater but she taught ice skating. That was really good. I think I'm a pretty good skater and I think it helped a lot with my game."
Added Popeye: "Seth really picked up on things quick. He started with a figure skating coach and really picked up on understanding his edges, skating backwards. It's amazing how quick ... she would show him something and how quick he picked up doing it."
As Jones grew, he progressed quickly through the top Colorado youth hockey programs and caught the attention of USA Hockey, which recruited him to Ann Arbor, Mich., for the USNTDP.
"It's always a tough decision leaving your family at age 15," Seth Jones said. "Your mom, you got your bothers. My dad was an assistant coach with the Mavericks before I left. Leaving your family is a tough decision."
But it's worked out for the best, as Jones has continued his ascent, including earning the invitation to this week's junior evaluation camp.
"I was really surprised and really excited, also," he said of getting the invitation. "This is my goal. I'm coming here to make the team. I knew I had to come to this camp and make a name for myself as a young guy."
Blais said he knew almost nothing about Jones before arriving in Lake Placid. But after seeing him over the first three days of the camp, he knew Jones had a place among the final 29 skaters trying out for the team this week.
"I hadn't seen him before," Blais said. "I wasn't in a position to think that he could make the team but now I am. Now I'm in a position where this kid is big and strong and smart way beyond his years. … He's one of the players that really has impressed the coaching staff."
Added camp teammate Stefan Noesen, a Texas resident who played youth hockey with Justin Jones, to NHL.com: "It's tough hockey and he's fitting in well. He has a long and glorious road ahead of him with hockey."
Some may have been surprised by Jones sticking with the smaller group this far, but Popeye said it was Seth's plan all along, despite his age.
"He's always been an underage kid playing against older kids," Popeye said. "It's been that way pretty much his whole life. They've always wanted to push him up; he's too good to play with his own age group. I always told him when you're playing with older kids … you really have to prove yourself. You have to stand out and prove yourself because you're the youngest kid out there and everyone knows you're the youngest kid. You have to prove that you belong playing with older kids, and he's always been able to do that.
"Even going to this tryout. … He told me they want me to come and get some experience, but he said if I get cut I'm going to be mad. And I kind of paused and said you know what, you should be mad if you get cut, because you're there to try to make the cut. You're trying to be the best you can be."
He's certainly done that so far, but the question becomes where the next step of Jones' career will take him. He'll play for the USNTDP under-18 team full-time this season, but after that remains a question with no shortage of answers. He was drafted by the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League with the 11th pick of the 2009 WHL draft, while the Waterloo Black Hawks hold his rights if he opts for the United States Hockey League. And there's the NCAA route, where no limit of schools would be interested.
Jones said that decision is best left for the future.
"I'm not really worried about that right now," he said. "This camp is my main focus right now, and hopefully I make it to December camp. I'll be looking to make a decision (sometime) next season. I'm not focusing on that right now."
Much like the decision on leaving for Ann Arbor, his father said the next choice will be Seth's to make.
"We'll leave it up to him," Popeye Jones said. "Do I want him to get an education, whether he plays college hockey or not? Absolutely. But you can get a college education now and not go on a college campus the way they have things set up, through the Internet, correspondence courses. … We feel he's mature enough to make his own decision."
That maturity ranges to all off-ice. Father and son know that as Seth excels at events like this week's camp, more media and fan attention is coming.
"He's a very humble kid," Popeye Jones said. "He's probably not going to read too many press clippings. He's just going to keep his head down and work. That's what me and Amy (Seth's mother) have always taught our kids, just work as hard as you can work, that's the only thing you can control."
Added Seth: “I just have to keep my head on straight. You can't let the media and stuff like that get into your head."
Even if the autographs requests are coming from teammates and coaches already are predicting your NHL draft status.
"When he gets drafted," Blais said, "it won't be just the first round, it'll be how high will he go in the first round."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK