NEWARK, N.J. — They found each other underneath the stands of the hockey/basketball arena. Seth Jones, the son, the NHL draft pick, waded through the crowd in his new hat and jersey. Popeye Jones, the father, the former NBA player, waited in his dark suit.
“What’s up?” the son said, a blank look on his face.
The father hugged his son, patting the logo on the jersey. Both smiled. Both talked. Then the father put his arm around his son and led him down the hall for a private word, ahead of the TV cameras trailing them, away from the hype and hubbub.
No, Seth Jones did not go to the Colorado Avalanche, did not become the first black player drafted No. 1 overall, did not become the first American to go first since 2007, the fairytale scenario. He did not go to the Florida Panthers second overall or the Tampa Bay Lightning third overall, either.
NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American skater – a 6-foot-4, puck-moving defenseman – slipped to the Nashville Predators fourth overall.
It was a draft-day shocker, along with the trade of Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils, making Roberto Luongo the Vancouver Canucks’ No. 1 goalie again, and the trade of Dave Bolland to the Toronto Maple Leafs, dumping the guy who scored the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup winner less than a week earlier.
[Related: Avs select Nathan MacKinnon with No. 1 overall pick]
“I know how competitive he is,” said Popeye Jones, now an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets. “He’s kind of like me. He probably wanted to go [No. 1]. But hey, it didn’t work. It’s fine.”
The thing is, it might turn out to be much more than fine. It might turn out to be a perfect fit.
Seth Jones is joining a franchise run by David Poile, the general manager of the U.S. Olympic hockey team. He is joining a franchise that usually makes the playoffs and struggled this season after losing free agent Ryan Suter – the player he will essentially replace. He is joining a franchise that has an elite defenseman in Shea Weber, from whom he can learn and with whom he might partner. He is joining a franchise that hired assistant coach Phil Housley, a former NHL defenseman and Jones’ head coach when Team USA won gold at world juniors.
He is going to Nashville, about 2-1/2 hours from Dresden, Tenn., where his father grew up, his father still owns a house and his grandmother still lives. He is going to Music City.
“I love country, to be honest,” he said. “I listen to it a lot.”
This is no sad song.
“Yeah, well, I’m competitive,” he said when asked if he had something to prove to Colorado, Florida and Tampa Bay. “I have a competitive nature. I get that from my parents. You definitely want to prove them wrong, and you definitely want to show them why they should have picked you. That’s not my only goal next year, but it’s definitely on my list.”
Seth Jones seemed destined for Denver. He fell in love with hockey there while his father played for the Nuggets, skating for the first time on a pond, jumping into street games on a suburban cul-de-sac, attending Game 7 of the 2001 final when the Avalanche beat the Devils to win the Cup.
Popeye Jones had once picked the brain of Avs captain Joe Sakic about getting his son involved in the sport. It seemed natural that Avs exec Joe Sakic would pick Seth Jones now. Preds GM Poile said when the Avs won the draft lottery, he was “99 percent sure” they would take Jones. “That made perfect, perfect sense,” he said.
But then the Avs hired Patrick Roy as their head coach and vice-president of hockey operations. Roy had coached in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and he had seen Nathan MacKinnon up close. MacKinnon had starred against Jones in the Memorial Cup, too.
The Avs signaled for days that they would take a forward first overall. Some thought they were bluffing. Some thought they were trying to trade the pick. Even Jones wasn’t sure. “You don’t know where you’re going until you hear your name – or you don’t hear your name,” he said.
They took MacKinnon.
“It definitely sounded too good to be true, and it turned out that way,” Jones said. “I’m not …”
He paused, searching for the right word.
“Unhappy that they didn’t choose me,” he continued. “That was their decision, and that’s what they thought would be best for their organization. You’ve got to respect that.”
[Also: 2013 NHL entry draft: Top 30 picks & profiles]
Then the Panthers took Aleksander Barkov, and the Lightning took Jonathan Drouin.
Poile couldn’t believe it. Most draft experts had these four in their top four, but not in this order. “Nobody had this order,” Poile said.
Housley couldn’t believe it. “We knew we were going to get a player,” he said. “But to get Seth Jones, I mean, you can’t find players like this on the back end.”
Though teams are wary of using the No. 1 overall pick on defensemen, perhaps contributing to Jones’ fall, the Predators had Jones atop their list. They now have an elite goaltender in Pekka Rinne, an elite defenseman in Weber, a replacement for Suter and several other studs on a deep defense. Though they have work to do up front, Poile acquired prospect Filip Forsberg at the trade deadline. He will explore free agency and might now have the assets to make a move.
“I wish we had the No. 1 pick,” Poile said, smiling. “Then I wouldn’t have to say I can’t believe the player was there.”
Fourth? Fine. Popeye Jones went 41st in the 1992 NBA draft. He wasn’t invited to the event. He was just happy to have his name called. It didn’t matter. He joined the Dallas Mavericks and found a mentor in Derek Harper, watching him, working out with him, learning how to be a pro.
[More: Seth Jones motivated by draft drop: 'Prove them wrong']
Seth Jones, who already has learned from watching NBA players like Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, can learn from Weber.
“I’m probably more excited than him because I understand in professional sports you want a guy like that,” Popeye Jones said. “You want to see him every day. You want to actually sit by him. You want to go to dinner with him. You want to go to his house. You want to see what makes him so successful.”
It remains to be seen whether Seth Jones will make the Predators in 2013-14, let alone whether he will play with Weber. But Poile said he will be given a chance to make the team, and Housley will be there to help him. Jones is motivated to make an immediate impact.
“People say it takes time for defensemen to really grow in the league, a couple years at least,” Jones said. “Hopefully I can prove that theory wrong.”
Don’t worry about that blank look. Housley said Jones has the attitude and personality to handle the transition to the NHL, the highs and lows, the grind. The son of a professional athlete and coach, he was a calming influence for Team USA. You never knew if he was ahead or behind.
“At the world juniors, he’d make a mistake,” Housley said. “He’d come to the bench. I’d look down, and it was like nothing. He didn’t get frustrated. He was ready for his next shift.”
Time for his next step.
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