Jones emerges as leader for Blue Jackets

By Steve Gorten - The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS — Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno has no doubt that one day defenseman Seth Jones will have a “C” or an “A” sewn on the front of his jersey.

“Just with how important he is to a team,” Foligno said of Jones eventually being named a captain or an alternate. “I mean, I don’t speak for the coaches or management, but I think it’s a no-brainer when you look at him, his body of work and the type of person he is.”

Defenseman Jack Johnson, who was given an “A” this season, noted “it would make sense to me down the road,” and added, “It could be sooner than later.”

“He’s a big part of this team,” Johnson said. “Coaches rely on him in big situations, and you need your leaders to be guys used in big situations.”

Coach John Tortorella has leaned heavily on Jones this season, giving him more ice time than any other player — an average of 24:42 per game, including a career-high 30:08 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 27. He has asked the 23-year-old, in his fifth NHL season, to shut down opponents and step up offensively for a team that has labored to score because of the struggles of several key forwards.

Jones has distinguished himself in both roles. In addition to providing reliable defense with just 16 penalty minutes, he ranks second on the Jackets in assists (22) and points (30).

He headed into the team’s mandatory five-day break with at least one point in 12 of the past 15 games, including five assists and one goal during a current four-game point streak.

“You have stretches like that,” Jones said, downplaying his success. He pointed out that the season (2015-16) he got traded to the Jackets, he posted 10 points the first 16 games but just one more the next 24 games before leaving the Nashville Predators. He then had 20 points in 41 games with the Jackets.

Earlier this season, Jones went 11 consecutive games without a point. Since then, he has 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in 20 games.

“It just happens. I don’t change the way I play,” he said. “Sometimes you get some second assists that maybe you shouldn’t get. You shoot the puck on net, hit a couple of shin pads and it goes in. So I try to be aggressive. Things are going well right now, but when they’re not going well and I haven’t gotten a point in a while, it’s nothing to be down about.”

Jones’ impact at both ends of the ice is why he was named an NHL All-Star for the second consecutive season last week — the team’s only representative picked to play in the game on Jan. 28 in Tampa, Florida — and why Tortorella has started campaigning for him to receive the Norris Trophy, given to the league’s top defenseman.

“I don’t look at it as growing offensively. I look at it as being a leader,” Tortorella said of the emergence of Jones, who had 12 goals, most by a defenseman in franchise history, and 30 assists last season.

When Jones joined the Blue Jackets two years ago this month in a trade with the Predators, who received center Ryan Johansen in exchange, he “kind of waded into games,” Tortorella recounted. “He has really taken a step, a couple of huge steps, in wanting to make a difference right away. … He has turned into a guy who wants to lead the way. And I think that has helped his offensive numbers.”

Tortorella has regularly referred to his top defensemen — Jones and Zach Werenski — as “rovers,” explaining that they’re not traditional blue-liners nor forwards, but rather hybrids who can transition seamlessly. Jones isn’t a fan of the term.

“I pride myself in playing defense and not giving up chances. That’s my job, to keep pucks out of the net first,” he said. “That’s what I continue to focus on. Once that part of the game is taken care of, then that gives me more confidence and leeway to jump into the play.”

Noted Tortorella, “He has the skating ability, he has the length, hands. … He has everything that you need to be a top player. And I think he’s showing that.”

Johnson described Jones as “a quiet guy by nature” who has “taken a lot of pride in trying to lead by example.”

Ultimately, “that’s how you become a leader,” Foligno added. “Your play has to speak for itself first. You can say all the things you want, but he has done it through his play.”

Korpisalo recalled

Backup goaltender Joonas Korpisalo was recalled Tuesday from minor-league Cleveland. Korpisalo was sent down after Friday’s loss to get playing time with the Monsters. The Jackets will practice at 4 p.m. Wednesday after their five-day break.

By Steve Gorten

The Columbus Dispatch

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