Monday, November 9, 2015

Monday's Portland Winterhawks' News and Notes: Be Patient with Jones!

There has been a lot of noise across social media recently regarding the poor defensive play of Portland defenseman Caleb Jones.  Jones was a minus two on the weekend, despite tallying two goals and two assists over the two games at home vs. Kelowna. He was caught out of position multiple times by the slick passing of skilled Kelowna forwards Dillon Dube, Nick Merkley and Tyson Baillie, leading to goalie Adin Hill not having much of a chance on Rocket goals. Despite all of this, I would argue that Portland fans need to be patient with Jones.

Jones played in the USHL the last two seasons for the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP), where he did not contribute much offensively (15 points over two seasons) and was an even plus/minus rating. This season, Jones struggled to find his offensive game to start the season, showing flashes of skill moving the puck but only notching five points over his first 11 games. Then, starting with the game on October 28th in Kennewick vs. Tri-City, he has gone on a five game point streak, where he's had a total of eight points. This total (13 points) places him tied for 12th among WHL d-men with Carolina Hurricanes' first round pick Haydn Fleury. He is top amongst all rookie d-men in scoring. I would expect him to gradually move up this list as the season goes. Visually, he looks much more comfortable moving the puck around and has assumed the power play quarterback role nicely with Jack Dougherty out injured. He also is timing his pinches into the zone well, which you could see when he scored the Hawks' third goal Saturday night.

His offensive game is not what people are criticizing though. A lot of fans are tired of seeing odd man rushes the other way with Jones lagging behind a forward with the puck skating in on Hill. He has been often caught out of position with forwards getting in behind him and does not have the speed to overtake them. This is something that I also saw while he played for Team USA at the developmental camp this last summer. He sometimes does not know where the forward he is supposed to be covering is and seems to under estimate their speed. It didn't really stand out too much until Portland played the speedy and talented Kelowna Rockets. I doubt there are players more skilled at reading where defensemen are and will be then the collection of talent Kelowna has. A big part of their identity is using their speed to get behind d-men and set up breakaways or odd man rushes. The way you take this away is, as a team, clogging the neutral zone and forcing the passes to go along the boards, down the wing. Portland, as a team, did not do this during the series with Kelowna and it showed. Jones is the easy one to blame as he was the one everyone saw chasing down a Rockets' forward from behind, but his definitely not the only one to blame.

That having been, said, positioning is easily the part of Jones' game he needs to work on the most. He is only 16 games into his WHL career though and he has a lot of time to improve this. How often have we seen skilled players like Derrick Pouliot and Joe Morrow struggle with areas of their defensive game? They both improved dramatically as the season went and I would argue Jones will as well.

If we were approaching game 70 of the season and Jones was struggling with this aspect of his game, I would be concerned. However, we are only approaching game 17, so he's got plenty of time to work on this.

Glass and Team Canada Red Fall in Bronze Game:
-Cody Glass and Team Canada Red(TCR) had been undefeated at the U-17 Challenge entering the semifinals last Friday. Then they fell in the shootout to Russia and were sent to the bronze medal game vs. Sweden. Swedish goalie Avid Soderblom stopped all 29 TCR shots Saturday and the Swedes shut out TCR 3-0. Glass went pointless in the tourney, but still played really well in the action that I saw. He should be back in the lineup for Portland Wednesday vs. Tri-City.

Nick Merkley WHL Player of the Week:
-For the second time this season a player used two great games vs. Portland to get player of the week honors. Merkley, had not been playing great prior to the two games vs. Portland but rounded into form with six points in the two games. Entering the game, Merkley had 11 points in 13 games played, but now has 17 in 15. Merkley was injured while at Arizona Coyotes' preseason camp and reportedly did not look like he was completely recovered. I think it would be fair to say he has recovered now.

Bellows and U.S. U-18 Team Unbeaten at Five Nations Tournament:
-Portland prospect Kieffer Bellows scored two goals and added an assist as the U.S. beat Switzerland 7-0 Sunday to finish a perfect 4-0 in the  round robin games at the Five Nations Tournament. Bellows has four goals and two assists in the four games so for for six points.

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