It was 10 a.m. Saturday Sept. 29 at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y. Throngs of reporters sat around the glass, cameras ready and notepads open, waiting for Team McClanahan to take the ice for practice before the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game.
They sat eager to take another look at USA Hockey’s next big star and a potential top-three pick in the National Hockey League Draft next June.
Seth Jones wasn’t at the rink quite yet, though.
After playing into the third period for the Portland Winterhawks the night before, Jones left the bench and headed for the airport, finally arriving in Buffalo, N.Y. at 10:15 a.m. on Saturday morning and heading straight to the arena to meet the press.
“I haven’t slept,” Jones said. “I got an hour on the plane, but that’s about it.”
It certainly didn’t show.
Jones dominated the night’s showcase among 39 other rookies who will fill next year’s draft. He showed all the tools that have many arguing he could go first overall at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. on June 28, 2013.
“He’s a competitor, a talented competitor,” NHL analyst Craig Button said. “He is a unique blend of size and skill and he took control.”
The game had a cautious start with some of the players working together for the first time. It was during that slow start that Buffalo native Sean Malone beat Jones for the only time all night on one of several scoring chances. Malone’s blazing speed was an eye opener early on in front of a crowd of family and friends.
“The first period, I got off to a bit of a slow start,” Jones said. “I needed to get my legs under me, but after the first intermission I got some confidence and played my game.”
From that play on, Jones was a man amongst boys. A solid physical presence in the defensive zone, Jones stood out in his own end with poise on the puck and pinpoint passing to go along with a smooth, long skating stride that was as much an asset as his physical strength.
Jones showed off that smooth speed throughout the contest, jumping into the high slot in the offensive zone and even splitting through the defense late in the third period, springing himself for a breakaway that forced a slashing penalty on defenseman Ian McCoshen.
And as was appropriate for the occasion, Jones found the back of the net in the second period, showing off his heavy shot right off of the faceoff win from Ryan Fitzgerald, who had a special night of his own with three assists and MVP honors. The drive from the right point just a few steps off the wall found its way through traffic and over the blocker of goalie Eamon McAdam.
“It was a great faceoff win, and I just looked up and saw a lane and got it to the net. I saw guys going to the net, and it just happened to go in off the blocker,” Jones said.
Despite all the hype surrounding Jones over the weekend, it’s important to remember just how far away the draft is. Even with Jones’ strong showing, there is an impressive list of players preparing to hear their names called at the podium by an NHL general manager.
“To determine the winner of the draft race in the first furlong, to me, is unwise. It isn’t so much that players fall off, but that other players rise,” Button said, noting players like Jonathan Huberdeau and Mika Zibanejad, who made huge leaps up the board during their draft years.
Jones will have plenty to prove during his first season in Portland, Ore. He already left his mark on scouts in attendance and represented USA Hockey in front of more than 5,000 fans.
“I’ll get a little more sleep tonight than last night,” Jones said.
After two games and nearly 12 hours of travel, a little rest seemed well deserved.