But there he was, in the final game of the 2015-16 season, the most celebrated American hockey prospect in years benched against the Chicago Blackhawks after his first-period turnover directly resulted in a goal by winger Artemi Panarin.
After sitting out the second period against Chicago, Jones returned to start the third period, eventually assisting on Scott Hartnell‘s overtime winner in a 5-4 Columbus victory that closed out a 34-40-8 record, which ranked second-worst in the Eastern Conference. Every indication was that the player tasked with helping hockey grow across the United States had hit a considerable snag in his development.
Just over 17 months later, Jones is poised to fulfill his destiny and become hockey’s next great star.
“The game meant nothing, and I benched him because I wanted to let him know,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella told ESPN.com last week. “It was basically to let him know for the upcoming year, ‘Wake up and take control.'”
If Jones’ play since that benching is any indication, Tortorella’s message was received loud and clear. “That son of a b—- has jammed it to me,” the coach said, laughing.
Jones hasn’t just “jammed it to” his coach. He has put the league on notice, establishing himself as Columbus’ top defenseman, a key figure on an up-and-coming team who last season established career highs in goals, assists, points and plus/minus, earning his first All-Star berth and a contract extension that will pay him $32.4 million over the next six years. Paired with standout rookie Zach Werenski, Jones led the top defensive unit on a Blue Jackets team that posted a franchise-high 108 points.
As a reward for its efforts, Columbus opened its 2017 first-round playoff series on the road against the defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who dispatched the Blue Jackets in five games on their way to a second consecutive title.
For Jones, that unceremonious playoff exit didn’t just mark the end of the season, but the beginning of a crucial new chapter in his hockey career.
“[It was a] disappointing end, but I think we grew a lot as a young team,” said Jones. “Then you run into the big, bad Penguins in the playoffs. We dominated the play for a lot of that series. I don’t think it was a five-game series. But we’ll be back. We’re looking forward to this year because we’re a year more experienced and it should be a fun ride, for sure.”
Naturally, that ride will be a lot more fun if Jones can help the Blue Jackets earn their first playoff series win since entering the league as an expansion franchise in 2000-01. That mission will be aided by the summer acquisition of Panarin, who came over from Chicago in a trade. But for Columbus to take its next step as a team, Jones will have to join the ranks of the league’s elite defensemen.
It’s a leap Tortorella thinks the defenseman, who turns 23 on Oct. 3, three days before the Blue Jackets open the season, is ready to make.
“He wants it. That’s most important,” said Tortorella. “He needs to have that thought that there needs to be more. If we’re going to be better, if we’re going to try to get into the playoffs, Jonesy is going to have to be better.”
That’s a tall order, asking an All-Star defenseman fresh off his breakout NHL season to perch himself among the ranks of Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Drew Doughty. Even if Jones seemed destined to reach those heights just a few years ago.
The son of longtime NBA forward and current Indiana Pacers assistant coach Popeye Jones, Seth Jones was only 17 when he was hailed as a transcendent American hockey star who could help grow the game in the unconventional warm-weather regions long coveted by the NHL. A biracial prodigy — Popeye is African-American and Seth’s mother, Amy, is white — with NBA roots and a Texas pedigree, Jones has an unconventional background for his chosen sport. He grew up playing hockey in Dallas and idolizing Detroit Red Wings legend Nicklas Lidstrom, but also drew inspiration from the people he met in the NBA locker rooms he frequented alongside his dad.
“I grew up watching [Dallas Mavericks star] Dirk Nowitzki when my dad was a coach,” said Jones. “I’d see him before and after every practice shooting shots. He was the best player on the team, but he’d shoot the most shots in practice — and it translated to the court.
“He was obviously the most skilled player, the best shooter on the team,” Jones continued. “But he would be the one taking the most shots. It makes sense. A lot of guys I know are like that. Kobe [Bryant] was like that.”
Before being drafted, Jones was the youngest member of the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships. In his lone season of Canadian junior hockey, he led the Portland Winterhawks to the best record in the Western Hockey League before winning a league title and securing a berth in the Memorial Cup tournament.
After he was taken fourth overall in the 2013 draft by a Nashville Predators team that already boasted all-world defensemen Shea Weber and Roman Josi, Jones’ ascent to NHL stardom appeared preordained.
Until it didn’t.
After a blockbuster trade to Columbus in January 2016 — when Nashville dealt him in exchange for No. 1 center Ryan Johansen — his subsequent benching at the end of that season and a breakout season on an upstart Blue Jackets club, stardom again appears within reach for Jones. And with it a potential place among the game’s elite.
Becoming a franchise player and leading Columbus on a deep playoff run would be the natural next step in Jones’ path to NHL stardom. And if he manages to help hockey find a broader audience in the process?
“During the season, you just want to focus on hockey. You just want it to be about your season and being successful. But at the same time, we do need to grow the game,” Jones said. “I’ve been in a couple of small markets, but even if I’m going out [making appearances] for youth hockey and whatnot, practices every month, that’s what I like to do, I enjoy that stuff. I think every little bit counts.”
And it sure beats being stapled to the bench.