It’s still stunning to see that Seth Jones is 25 years old. It feels like forever ago he was anchoring a US World Junior win in 2013, and maybe that’s because seven years can be forever. The following spring he was the consensus #1 pick, but somehow slipped to 4th for Nashville (though one would have to say that MacKinnon and Barkov going ahead of him didn’t work out badly for the Avs and Panthers, respectively. Drouin third, however….)
Two seasons later Jones was terrorizing the Hawks in the first round. You forget it now, given how the rest of those playoffs went, but if Pekka Rinne had not been facing the wrong way most of the series the Hawks very well might have gone home at the first hurdle. And Jones was magnificent, with four points in four games and some utterly dominant games. The fear was that Brandon Saad would be running into Jones for a decade or more six times or more a year. Of course, within a couple months, they’d be teammates the following season.
And Jones has been good to excellent his entire stay in Columbus. He formed a definitive #1 pairing with Zach Werenski that anchored the Jackets to three straight playoff appearances, the first time the organization had ever managed that. Aside from Sergei Bobrovsky, you’d have to say those two are the main reasons for it, given the lack of much the Jackets have ever had at forward.
Still, the thought a few years ago was that Jones would contend for a few Norris Trophies and have a decent chance at winning one. He’s only come close once, two years ago when he just missed out on being a finalist. And there’s still time. The next few years are the prime window for a player, and one where we’ve seen Victor Hedman or Drew Doughty break through. Maybe the time is coming for Jones.
Yet it still feels like there was another level Jones was going to get to that he hasn’t yet. He doesn’t have a 60-point season. He doesn’t have a truly dominant metric season, or really one that rises too much above what his team has done as a whole. Given how he skates and passes, you’d think there would be one. He only has two seasons of more than 10 goals from the back, and he’s got a more than acceptable shot. You rarely watch a Jackets game and notice Jones simply taking it over, and more just look at the stat sheet after and see what he’d done.
Is that what’s kept the Jackets from ever really being among the contenders? That’s probably unfair. A lack of true top scoring until Panarin was joined by Matt Duchene last year feels like the main culprit. Maybe some defensive depth. You can win with Jones on the top pairing, you would just need more help than they’ve gotten.
Which puts the Jackets at a weird nexus. Just how long do they think it’s going to take to be good again? And who are they building that team around? Pierre-Luc Dubois is on that list. Werenski too. Possibly Alex Wennberg. Maybe Oliver Bjorkstrand, but that’s short of anything.
Jones will have two years left on his deal after this season, and as we know around here you need to cash in big pieces when yo have them if you’re going to start over. Are the Jackets starting over? It’s got to be on the table. Jones’s trade value would probably never be higher than at this upcoming draft, which could land the Jackets a few high prospects/picks or more. It should. Could you start over with that?
The Jackets almost certainly will never consider it, but they have no bigger piece to try and get more spins at the wheel. Jones will be 28 when he hits unrestricted free agency. They will likely just hand him the seven or eight years at whatever rate he wants. Should they? You can see how those deals go. Will the Jackets be ready to play for real again in just two years? Can they risk losing yet another player simply walking out to find more profitable and promising pastures?
It would take some serious stones, and some serious foresight and honesty about what the Jackets actually are. But it might be the quickest route back to where they want to go.