NASHVILLE -- After he was drafted, defenseman Shea Weber spent two more seasons in junior hockey and played 48 games in Milwaukee, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Nashville Predators.
Similarly, Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter, a former Predator, didn’t get to Nashville straightaway after he was drafted in 2003. Suter played a season at Wisconsin and then played 63 games the following season in Milwaukee.
“The road to Nashville is through Milwaukee -- so we’ve used that, it’s worked really good, players understand that,” David Poile, general manager for the Predators and the U.S. Olympic team, said Thursday. “I truly believe in it.
“Whether it’s Shea Weber or Ryan Suter, all those guys that played in Milwaukee, I think they would say, after the fact, that their time spent there was well worthwhile in terms of their development.”
But promising defenseman Seth Jones is the exception to the belief that has served the Predators so well. It has been nothing but green lights on the road to Nashville since he was drafted in June, taken fourth overall. Jones is the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones.
“Seth looks like he is ready both physically and mentally,” Poile said of the 19-year-old defenseman. “You worry about both of those aspects. Sometimes you have a player that’s not physically ready to play and you have to protect him.... Most of the time, at 18 or 19, they’re not mentally mature to handle the challenge and pressure that comes with playing in the National Hockey League.
“He’s one of the most mature kids I’ve ever dealt with. As I said to somebody yesterday, in my 32-year career, I’ve had one 18-year-old defenseman, Scott Stevens [in Washington], and that seemed the right thing to do at the time. This feels the exact same way.”
The Los Angeles Kings will get a look at Jones for the first time in Thursday’s game here. He has been playing big minutes -- scoring his first NHL goal on Saturday against the Islanders -- and has had three games where his ice time exceeded 25 minutes.
“For someone who is 6-5 and 19 years old, he gets around the ice as well as anybody,” said Nashville Coach Barry Trotz. “He’s still learning the game. There’s a lot of stuff he will have to lose in his game, some bad things from junior. He’s a sponge. You tell him once and he gets it.
“His upside is phenomenal, as a player. The number of minutes and the situations we’re playing him, as a 19-year-old, is unprecedented here with the Predators. It’s impressive but we’re only six games in.”
Said Kings Coach Darryl Sutter: “He’s a fine young player and he’s going to be a great player…. He’s playing the left side as a right shot, you don’t see that a lot. It’s like those guys that can play any position in the outfield, or the guys that can move from second to short and third. You can see he’s got that whole presence of game, being able to see it from different angles.”
Will the fast track include the Olympics? Jones was invited to the U.S. Olympic orientation camp in the summer. In some quarters, he is considered a long shot but one member of Team USA from four years ago suggested he is more than mobile enough to play on the larger ice surface in Sochi, Russia.
It’s worth noting that Canada took a chance on a teenage Drew Doughty of the Kings in 2010 and it paid big dividends. By the end of the tournament, the defenseman was playing top-four minutes. Team USA officials would be well aware of that fact, especially since Kings GM Dean Lombardi happens to be one of Poile’s consultants in Olympic matters.
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