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Things looking up for Lightning's Jones

TAMPA - Up … down … up … down … up … down. That describes the five-year pro career of Blair Jones. Since signing his first pro contract in 2006-07, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound former fourth-round draft pick's path has looked like a yo-yo with so many call-ups from and returns to the minor leagues. This season, the 24-year-old hopes to cut the string and stick with the Lightning when training camp ends. "I put the work in during the summertime and I came here to stay here,'' Jones said. "I'm going to do everything I can, I want to do everything the coaches want me to do, anything they want from me I can do, and I will do it. I want to be an NHL player, I want to be here from the start and I want to be here all year.''
Since making his NHL debut in November 2006 as a first-year pro, Jones has been recalled and sent down 11 times. Last year, he was brought up from the American Hockey League five times, including twice during the postseason. In 319 career games in the AHL, Jones has 72 goals and 202 points. But that two-way scoring touch has not translated to the NHL, where he has two goals and six points in 56 games with Tampa Bay. It was in the playoffs last season, when he appeared in seven games and averaged just more than six minutes of ice time, that he seemed to excel and take his game to another level in a checking role. So, Jones took the exit-interview words of general manager Steve Yzerman to heart, dedicating himself to preparing for training camp with the intent of winning a job. "When he came in the playoffs, I think he just figured out, 'How am in going to make it in the NHL,' Yzerman said. "And I think he was very effective in that role he was in, playing five or six minutes a game in the playoffs. "I think it was just a really good year for him. He played well for (Norfolk), scored a lot of goals and scored a lot of points, competed hard. We stressed to him what we expect as far as on-ice and off-ice conditioning and he's worked really hard.'' Jones reported to camp about 10 pounds lighter than his weight in the playoffs, he said. He looks leaner, as his body fat percentage dropped to nine percent. Playing lighter and stronger, Jones said, has added a half-stride of speed to his game, which could make the difference between making the team or heading back to the minors once again, awaiting the next recall. "In this game a half-step means a lot, so anytime you can get that much ahead of a guy or that much closer to a guy, you are putting yourself in position to get a scoring chance or take away one,'' Jones said. "I just think I look a lot better and feel a lot better, so a lot of things went into that as far as diet and some extra training.'' That hasn't gone unnoticed, either, by the same team executives that nearly kept Jones on the roster out of camp last year. "His play in the playoffs in the highest caliber possible in hockey, it showed him that he could have success,'' coach Guy Boucher said. "He knows that he was not one of those guys that could sustain it in the past. He could give five minutes here or there, but the next game he couldn't give you that and his level of play would diminish. "So, he knew his shape, and we talked to him before the summer, and we knew that would be a real difference for us in what he could give us. Coming back in real shape, it's good to see.''

eerlendsson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7835

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