Any list of the NHL’s best young defensemen has to include Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 24-year-old Texas native finished fourth in voting for the Norris Trophy last season after posting a career-high 57 points in 78 games during a campaign that also saw his defensive impact improve.
Despite missing the start of this season with a knee injury, Jones picked up where he left off and hasn’t missed a beat, accumulating 20 points in 27 games while averaging an impressive 26 minutes, 26 seconds per game in his sixth NHL season.
We spoke to Jones this week on the ESPN On Ice podcast about his season, his fiery coach, his star teammates who are facing free-agency decisions, the NBA (where his father coaches) and his love of cooking.
Are you tired? Your ice time has literally jumped by two minutes a game. What’s behind that?
Jones: I don’t know, but my legs feel good so far this season. I started the season with an injury, but when I got back the coaches made it clear that they were going to play me a lot this year. I like that that the coaches could put me in that position to see a lot of ice.
Last season was a real breakout for you, finishing fourth in the Norris Trophy voting. Were you bummed about not being in the top three? Do you feel it might be a market thing since you play in Columbus?
Jones: That’s not up to me. What’s up to me is strong play, and then whatever happens, happens. I thought I had a pretty good season last year, and I’m happy my name is up there with the best defensemen in the league at the moment, ones that are really in their prime, like 27 or 28 years old. I’m lucky to be in that position.
It gives you a little fire inside, not being in the top three. But that obviously comes with more opportunity to grow as a player and become better and better every year. My biggest critic is myself, when it comes to my game. I pride myself on playing hard and being someone you can count on every night.
Your coach, John Tortorella, is one of the best in the NHL, but he’s also known to be kind of a caricature sometimes. Your buddies back at home must ask what he’s like. What do you tell them?
Jones: Oh, man. There’s quite a bit. I don’t think I could pick out one story for ya. It’s always fun coming to the rink every day and seeing what’s going to happen. But he’s been a lot better. Even when I got traded here, we were in the middle of really changing the culture here, trying to create a winning environment, and I think we’ve done that.
You know, we have a young team. He’s taken a step back and he’s grown as a coach. He understands that you can’t coach the way he used to, especially with us being as young as we are. He’s given guys more leash. He’s been great for us, because he pushes us, holds everyone accountable. That’s what I like.
Do you remember the first time he chewed you out?
Jones: I do, actually. The year I was traded to Columbus [from Nashville in 2016], in the last few minutes of a game against Chicago. We were playing Artemi Panarin, Patrick Kane, those guys, very last game of the season. I’m not sure where my mind was that game, because we were out of the playoffs already. So the very first period, five seconds into the game, I fall down, Panarin and Kane come in and they score. So Torts says, “Whatever happens, happens.” But then Panarin and Kane connect for two more goals while I’m out there, like they did against everyone all season. [Tortorella] comes into the room after the first [period] and he just rips me a new one. He said I wasn’t going to leave the bench in the second period. And I didn’t see a shift in the second period. I played in the third. But that was the memory.
And then you changed your shorts after that period.
Jones: (Laughs) Yeah, I had to grow up quick.
You mentioned Panarin. It’s obviously been looming over the Jackets this season that Artemi and Sergei Bobrovsky are free agents this summer. Is there talk about it in the room? Do you ever take Panarin aside and say, “Hey, we’re building something cool here. It would be nice if you took pen to paper and signed on for more?”
Jones: You know, not really. I think we’ve kind of turned it into kind of a fun topic. Earlier in the year, it was something in our locker room that wasn’t positive. It was kind of in the way of things. During camp there were a lot of media questions and everything. So we sat down as a team and had a meeting about it — coaches and players. These guys … it’s their right to do what they want to do. I think it was an issue at the start of the season, but I don’t think it is anymore. We laugh and joke about it with both Bob and Panarin. If they want to stay, they want to stay. But we know we’re going to get the best out of them this season.
We’re suckers for anecdotes. Panarin seems like a beauty in terms of personality. What’s your favorite story about him?
Jones: He still can’t speak great English, but he’s a pretty funny guy once he opens up; decent one-liners. He can’t really put a full sentence together. But he loves days off. He’s always telling us, “Go into Torts’ office, get us a day off.” Every time Torts walks through, he’s asking, “Day off tomorrow?”
Your dad, Popeye Jones, is an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers. Who’s your NBA team? And what do you think about the current product in the Association?
Jones: I don’t really have a favorite team, to be honest. I have favorite players. LeBron [James]‘s probably my favorite player. I like the Greek Freak [Giannis Antetokounmpo], too. I think the NBA … there’s a lot of good characters, a lot of good personalities. And they get a lot of publicity, a lot of national TV games, too. I love sitting down and watching basketball whenever it’s on. If I didn’t play hockey, I would have definitely played basketball. I just enjoy watching it, and I play it in the summer.
When you see some of the NBA guys taking runs at each other on social media or through the media, do you think they’re all in on the joke? Or is it real heat?
Jones: I’m not sure. But they’re all over Twitter. I love when the NBA 2K ratings come out. That’s the best time to follow them on Twitter. But it’s competitive nature and a little bit for the show. That’s good for the game. The value of the NBA keeps going up and up, like with that $2 billion TV deal. I think with the [players’ association] in that league, and with the NBA itself … you see guys coming to the game in crazy outfits and showing a different side of basketball you don’t see on the court.
Do you ever see a situation where hockey players will catch up a little bit to the NBA, as far as personality goes? Like, beefs and memes and things like that.
Jones: I think it’s going to take time. Hockey’s been such a cultural thing from the start. It’s hard to compare the basketball personalities with the hockey personalities. But we have some guys that run the personality category in our league. P.K. [Subban] is a guy that has taken the role of being that guy for our league. Sometimes he gets a bad rap, and I’m not sure why. But guys are going to start following along in his footsteps. A lot of younger guys will. Slowly the culture will change and guys will show more of their personalities.
Last thing. We understand you like to cook. Is it therapeutic? And what do you like to cook?
Jones: First off, I think it is sorta therapeutic, honestly. It depends on the day. Sometimes after practice I’m so tired and so beat. Or the day after a game I’ll just go out to eat. But I do like to cook. Maybe get a glass of wine, put some music on and follow the recipe. I cook for my teammates quite a bit. I think it’s fun. My favorite thing to cook? I tried homemade chicken parm a few weeks ago. I also got one of those pasta machines, those rollers? Made some homemade dough, made some linguini.
Thanks, Seth. You’re the best. We promise to try to get you into the top three for the Norris this season.
JONES: (Laughs) I’ll hold you to that.