By Jim Diamond
Early in the 2013-14 season, Peter Laviolette found himself with a whole lot more free time on his hands than he was anticipating having. The Philadelphia Flyers terminated Laviolette three games into the season, and having been already named one of Team USA’s coaches for the Sochi Olympics, Laviolette was given an opportunity to travel around the NHL scouting potential players for the American squad.
One of the players on Team USA’s radar was Seth Jones, a 19-year-old rookie defenseman with the Nashville Predators. Although Jones did not make the final Olympic roster, his and Laviolette’s paths would cross again in just a matter of months.
After a second consecutive season finishing out of the playoffs, Barry Trotz was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Predators. Nashville general manager David Poile selected Laviolette to succeed Trotz.
Laviolette was also chosen to lead Team USA at the World Championships in Belarus. Jones and fellow Predator Craig Smith were named to that team. The Americans finished outside of the medals in Minsk, but Laviolette gained some very valuable time with his two new charges.
“I think you always learn a little bit more about a player when you get to coach him; one because you get to have meetings with him, you get to talk to him just about the game or a situation or the next day or whatever it might be,” Laviolette said Sunday after his appearance at the Music City Sports Festival. “So right away, you get a better feeling and a better understanding of a player once you get to work with him from a coach-player relationship.”
Smith posted three goals and five assists in eight games played. He averaged 18:56 of ice time per game. Jones had two goals and nine assists, leading the Americans with 11 points. He also led the team in ice time, averaging 25:38.
While he didn’t come back to the US with a medal, Jones did return with multiple accolades. The Directorate named him the best defenseman in the tournament, he and Smith were both named as two of Team USA’s three best players by the coaches, and Jones was also named one of the tournaments all stars as voted by the media.
“Seth Jones got voted best defenseman in the tournament, and I’ll tell you he deserved every vote that was given his way because he was outstanding, he really was,” Laviolette told Sunday’s crowd. “To be able to help be a part of his future and watch him grow and develop into the player that he is going to be is something special for all of us; for me and for you and for the city of Nashville.”
Like any rookie who makes the jump directly from junior hockey to the NHL, Jones had some ups and downs in his first season with the Predators. With a year of experience under his belt and the confidence of his coach behind him, Jones appears to be set up well for a successful sophomore season when it begins this fall.
“From an on-ice performance, you get to realize how valuable a guy like Seth is that can play 25-plus minutes and play them very well against other team’s best players,” Laviolette said. “And we used him in that role over there. That was a shutdown pair and a shutdown defenseman that we used to put out against the best players that the opponent had to offer that night. He thrived in that role and in that environment. He did a terrific job and had a great tournament.”
Laviolette has the reputation of coaching an up-tempo offensive game, and that type of game suits Jones’ strong skating and above-average on-ice vision.
With Nashville’s top defensive pair of Shea Weber and Roman Josi already set, Laviolette will likely not have to lean on Jones as much as he did in Belarus, but Jones’ continued progression may allow the Predators coaching staff to reduce some of the workload on the Weber/Josi pairing.