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Examining the consequences of the Flyers acquiring Seth Jones

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Seth Jones might not be the surefire No. 1 defender that some prop him up to be, but he’s capable of returning to that level of play.

Philadelphia Flyers v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

I’ll preface this article by saying that I would prefer the Flyers to acquire a number of players instead of Seth Jones if they’re looking to fill the role of a top pair defender this offseason (they ought to be). Personally, the addition of any among Ryan Ellis, Dougie Hamilton, Mattias Ekholm, or John Klingberg would make me happier than seeing a blockbuster Jones trade on draft day. This is not an article advocating for the acquisition of Jones, so please don’t interpret it that way.

With all of that said, Seth Jones receives entirely too much vitriol from the analytics community when he’s a player who requires a different lens of viewing for appreciation. I’m not going to simply discard analytical results like some people, because those metrics are a tool to understand things about the player, but I will be seeking to find excuses behind the discrepancy between the eye test and the numbers. In doing so, I think I’ve been able to illustrate why Jones is still worthy of some consideration for a return to form as a long-term solution on the blue line for Philadelphia. How is that?

Clashing Styles

It’s odd to claim that John Tortorella’s system wasn’t a fantastic fit for Jones when it was obviously built to work around him and Zach Werenski, but that’s the first point I’d like to make here. As Brad rightly pointed out in his article a while ago, Jones was atrocious when defending zone entries, an increasingly crucial element of the game as players become more skilled and effective within a cycle. However, it should be noted that the Jackets for the past few years have collectively been awful when denying entries, even when they were considered an elite defensive team. Jones has always been one of the worst offenders in this department, but it’s fair to assess his play within context as partially a product of coaching.

The reason I feel comfortable throwing Torts under the bus when Jones has always been especially bad at defending entries and exits is that when doing basic analysis of what makes the star defender tick, it’s easy to notice the discrepancy between his straight line speed/acceleration versus his lateral agility and pivot speed. The latter combination has hampered Jones when attempting to defend in a conservative manner, and the aforementioned system additionally limits how he can apply his superior size, skill, and one-on-one stick usage to stuff the opposition’s transition. When Jones and Werenski were clicking, this might have worked, but in the absence of Panarin and other helpful forwards to drive the rush it hasn’t.

Jones hasn’t been stellar in terms of entry/exit defense, even on a team that’s been among the worst in the league at that aspect of the game. This chart is cumulative and factors in the better years of his career, and it still doesn’t reflect well on him.
Image via Corey Sznajder, data from the 2016-2019 seasons.

The extreme dichotomy between the micro-stats of Werenski and Jones illuminate the real underlying problem that Jones has encountered: he’s been relegated to the role of a pure, highly conservative “defensive defenseman” when that’s not the optimal style for his physical tools. I have long said that Seth Jones is a Hall of Fame talent; he has everything one would look for in size, speed, endurance, and hockey IQ. The issue with Jones in his time in Columbus has been the application of that wonderful set of traits in an effective manner.

In the prime years of the Artemi Panarin/Sergei Bobrovsky Blue Jackets, Seth Jones was fully worthy of his reputation.
Image via Evolving-Hockey.com
Since the season where the team began preparing for the departure of that nucleus of players, things have been a bit suboptimal for the big defender.
Image via Evolving-Hockey.com

After the departure of adequate forward support, John Tortorella clearly placed more of an emphasis on the “defensive defenders” playing it safe and hanging back while Werenski and company attacked. This coincided with a steep decline for Jones analytically, going from the 95.1th percentile over the course of the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons to the 76.9th percentile in 2018-19. The subsequent dip into the nether regions of the analytics community was right around the time that Columbus fully committed to the identity of “wait for the other team to come to us,” which clearly hurt the impact Jones was having on games. In a new role in Philadelphia, the former fourth overall pick might be a better fit.

Redundancy and Comfort

The questions surrounding Jones boil down to a single point: if he comes to Philadelphia and is paired with Ivan Provorov, will he elevate his play or remain stationary? The concern here is that Provorov and Jones are fairly similar players. Both eat big minutes, both have had years where they were whispered as dark horse picks for the Norris Trophy, both aren’t analytical darlings, and both seem to lack a dynamic element to their current approach to the game. On a team that struggled mightily this past year in large part because the defense was caught back on its heels or unable to contribute on the rush, this is an alarming commonality. It hasn’t been explicitly proven that Jones is a defender capable of propelling the offense of a top pairing in the NHL, and that’s something the Flyers cannot afford to miscalculate on.

Now, could Jones possibly accomplish this? Absolutely. As mentioned before, he has outstanding speed, hockey IQ, and the ability to act as a team’s fulcrum in transition situations. It’s more about whether he’s able to make the mental adjustment to that role when the later years of his development cycle taught him to sit back and let Werenski take care of those things. He’s shown willingness to be aggressive before, and that came in the peak years of his career; it would be up to Alain Vigneault and Mike Yeo to coax that style out of him once again.

Jones will be 27, and that comes with some habits that will take time to be broken and reformed to fit the current neutral zone forecheck that the Flyers are running. The assessment Chuck Fletcher has to get right is whether he can evolve as a player and convert to the aggressive, stand-up-guys-at-the-blue-line approach he’s able to execute. If Jones makes that shift, he has all the necessary ability to become a significantly better defenseman. There’s reason for hope and a narrative to be spun that can excuse the recently awful season and the atrocious play driving results.

The Cost

The hardest thing to discern with Jones when projecting him on the Flyers’ roster in 2021-22 is what will have to be moved to acquire him. Most trade projections begin with Travis Konecny and Morgan Frost, usually with some draft picks or lower tier prospects thrown in. I’ll leave this segment mostly nebulous for now because no concrete rumors have emerged concerning what Columbus is looking for, but I’d predict something in the realm of TK/Frost/First as the core package.

Jones will have one more year left on his contract with a modified no movement clause, paying him just $5.4 million AAV. The elephant in the room is the extension that will have to be offered for Jones to remain with whomever adds him at the draft. Evolving Hockey is predicting a five year deal at around $7 million AAV, but that sounds incredibly low given the opinion of Jones among the traditionalist NHL community. The term might be right, but don’t be shocked if the young defender commands something in the territory of Roman Josi’s contract ($9 million AAV, 8 years, full NMC).

2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game - Metropolitan v Central
Jones could command a contract that’s worthy of a Norris winner thanks to his physical talents, reputation, and draft pedigree, but has he proven to be worthy of that kind of commitment yet? Even his biggest supporters would find it a stretch to say he’s better than Josi, Pietrangelo, etc.
Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Making that work for a Flyers team that is already strapped against the cap and depleted or questionable at critical forward positions will be a tough ask when building a contender. It’s another question to be answered in this trade scenario, which adds to the potential for disaster in such a transaction. At worst, a Jones trade and signing could completely wreck whatever remains of this team’s salary structure and leave the Flyers unable to pay proven commodities like Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux; if Chuck Fletcher bungles this and Jones becomes an anchor, the team will inevitably have to head into another rebuild while the Hayes and Jones contracts wear off.

Risks build contenders too, and the Flyers have been short on the kind that have broken the right way for them lately. Maybe they’re due, and maybe Seth Jones will pan out and become a rock for a dynasty.

Probably not. We can still hope.