TAMPA - What seemed improbable a month ago might now be attainable - Seth Jones could fall into the Lightning's lap during Sunday's NHL Entry Draft. Since Colorado won the draft lottery in April, most believed the Avalanche would use the top overall pick on the 6-foot-4, 205-pound defenseman with a right-handed shot. Jones started playing hockey in Denver while his dad, former professional basketball player Popeye Jones, played for the NBA's Denver Nuggets. But within the past week, Avalanche executive Joe Sakic publicly stated the team's intention to draft a forward with the first pick - either Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin or Aleksander Barkov.
Under that scenario, should Florida - which holds the No. 2 pick - elect to take a forward, then Jones would hear his name called by Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman about as quick as he would be able to get to the podium at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. "Jones represents as complete a package as we've seen in any defenseman over the past decade,'' Red Line Report founder Kyle Woodlief said in his scouting report for USA Today. "With his mix of size, puck skills, natural athleticism and poise, Jones can dominate and take over games at both ends of the ice, and has an impact on the game in every aspect.'' Jones was the anchor defenseman - and youngest player - for gold-medal-winning Team USA at this year's World Junior Championship, registering a goal and seven points while posting a plus-8 rating. A product of the U.S. National Development Team, Jones also helped lead the U.S. to gold medals at the 2011 and 2012 World Under-18 championships. This past season, he helped lead Portland to a Western Hockey League championship, scoring 14 goals and 56 points and posting an impressive plus-46 rating in 61 games. Portland advanced to the Memorial Cup championship, losing in the final to Halifax and the duo of Drouin and MacKinnon. While Jones is the top-rated defenseman available, he is listed as the top overall prospect by some scouts, including NHL Central Scouting. "He has the ability to be a game-changer because he has good instincts and awareness,'' according to B.J. MacDonald, a scout for NHL Central Scouting. "He's an underrated passer, possesses solid one-on-one play and can skate the puck out of danger at any time. He's already the complete package, but I get the feeling he still has another gear to go to.'' Cory Pronman at Hockey Prospectus said Jones has been making high-level plays and defensive reads since he was a 16-year-old. "His best trait is his clearly elite hockey sense,'' Pronman said. "He is advanced way beyond his years. He makes a multitude of good defensive plays with positioning, stick work and anticipation. He seems to always to be a step ahead of everyone else. This is evident in his offensive ability as well. He knows when to pinch, and he can exhibit high levels of offensive skill, creativity and vision. "Jones has a cannon from the point, which can make him a very dangerous player on the power play. He is a big man with a ton of weapons.'' The Lightning would never say it publicly, but given their choice of the top prospects, Jones might very well be at the top of their wish list. "He can skate for days, so he can play lots of minutes,'' Tampa Bay director of scouting Al Murray said. "He can take the puck and lug it out of his zone end-to-end, he can make plays with a quick pass out of his own zone or hit a guy at the far blue line, run a power play as both a shooter and a playmaker. He needs some work in his own end as far as his defensive positioning and his commitment defensively, but he is a very skilled player and will be a really good addition to any team.'' firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 259-7835 Twitter: @erlendssonTBO