Perhaps the biggest (not on-ice) news story in the NHL at the moment is that, per Elliotte Friedman, Seth Jones has informed the Columbus Blue Jackets that he will not be re-signing with them and that he intends on testing the free-agent market next off-season. The Flyers, who will surely be pursuing a number of potential partners for Ivan Provorov this off-season, will likely have a ton of interest in Jones. However, Jones defends the blueline like Andrew MacDonald, and that should be a red flag for a Philadelphia Flyers team that already lacks proven, top-end entry deniers.
Something that maybe wasn’t talked about enough during his time here, but should have been, was just how good Matt Niskanen was at denying zone entries with the Flyers. While most of the team’s defensive corps graded out as middling in the 2019-20 season, Niskanen suppressed them at an elite level, on average allowing a carry-in just 48.3 percent of the time that he had been targeted. The only other Flyer close was Myers, at 52.3 percent. Niskanen’s departure combined with Myers’ down year led to opponents entering the Flyers’ defensive zone with control much more often in 2021 than they had a season prior, which will, in turn, lead to more rush chances against. (Any entry-based statistics are via Corey Sznajder’s tracking unless noted otherwise.)
Barring a drastic change in playstyle, adding Jones would cause the Flyers to allow even more chances off the rush with him in the lineup.
Retreat, retreat, retreat
It’s a mindset that Flyers fans know all too well. From Long Island to Philadelphia, the biggest flaw in MacDonald’s game had to have been his willingness to concede the zone, allowing the opposition to enter his team’s defensive zone at will. While Jones is clearly a superior player, it's the most noticeable flaw in his game as well.
Before we get to the numbers, let’s get a general idea of how Jones goes about defending in the neutral zone. The video below includes clips from two games this past season, January 29th against the Chicago Blackhawks, as well as March 22nd against the Carolina Hurricanes. The games were chosen randomly.
What we’re looking for here is a defenseman’s ability to break up rushes into their own zone by either forcing dump-ins, or denying entry to the zone altogether.
OK, that was a decent amount of targets. His best step-ups were kept for last, specifically the final three clips, but the bulk of these instances show how Jones tends to fall back and concede the blue line, leaving a bigger gap between himself and the puck-carrier. In some of these cases, it directly leads to a chance against.
To be sure that these two games weren’t just outliers, I watched 20 games in total from this season, solely his shifts, and left those with the same conclusion. He did have a few better nights in this specific area, but the larger idea of Jones as an entry defender remained in place overall.
This is reflected in Corey’s manually-tracked data. In the tracked 22-game sample from this past season, Jones allowed a carry-in on 67.1 percent of his targets, and allowed a pass into the Blue Jackets’ zone on another 19.6 percent of his targets. Columbus struggled as a team to stop opponents from entering their zone with control, but Jones struggled the most among their top-four minute-eaters, and it’s not close.
Maybe the more stunning thing is that among Flyers defenders, only Nate Prosser had a worse time defending entries than Jones did in 2021. And that Flyers defense wasn’t exactly impressive to watch this past year.
It wasn’t just one weird season for Jones either. In his three seasons prior, Jones allowed a carry-in on 70 percent of his targets. For comparison, MacDonald had allowed carry-ins on 74.8 percent of his targets over the same time period — one of the worst marks in the league. The average of all NHL defensemen looks to sit between 58-62 percent in recent years, gradually decreasing over the last four seasons.
His passivity at the blueline isn’t new, nor is it his only issue.
Not his only weakness
Now, that’s just one area of the game. An important one, but one. However, when it comes to Jones’ play without the puck, it’s more than just entry defense that falls short of expectation.
Last June, Jack Han (@JhanHky) connected his issue with denying entries to adjustments caused by Jones’ more overarching skating issues when it comes to defending. This weakness brings his in-zone defense into question as well. He can throw a good hit, but he’s not exactly “seaweed” in the defensive zone quite like Niskanen or Justin Braun.
Under Alain Vigneault, Flyers defensemen are expected to play man coverage in their zone/man hybrid in the defensive end. This is true for most teams, and if we’re to assume that Jones, who will be 27 when next season starts, won’t improve much as a player from where he’s at now, sticking to his player just doesn’t look to be one of his strengths.
Look, Jones isn’t an awful in-zone defender. For the most part, he actually looks to be quite good at keeping opponents to the perimeter. It would have been extremely tough for him to build up the reputation that he currently has if he was constantly blowing coverage and getting beat in one-on-one situations. However, when you isolate his off-puck play across multiple games, you don’t find what you’d expect to see from someone who is considered to be one of the league’s best defensemen by a significant number of people. No player is ever going to be perfect, but that reputation carries high standards, and there was a real lack of possession-changing plays coming from Jones over the sample of games.
They existed, but there weren't many. Boxing out only goes so far.
Why pass on Jones?
My stance is not that Jones is a bad player whose presence on the backend would hurt the Flyers. He does a lot of things well. What I believe should give pause to the idea of acquiring Jones is his perceived defensive impact versus his actual defensive impact on the ice. Well, there’s that, and also how his biggest weaknesses aren’t exactly the strengths of the defensemen currently on the roster. Jones is seen as a top-pair, right-shot, do-it-all defenseman — and that type of player is extraordinarily valuable. Not only will it take a big package deal to land Jones in a trade, but he’s also set up for a big payday with his current deal set to expire at the conclusion of next season.
Jones hasn’t played like an $8,000,000-plus player for at least three seasons now, and locking him in at that cap hit for the next seven to eight years greatly hinders your team’s ability to make the most of their money. While certainly not the only reason, the ability to find undervalued players instead of overpaying on reputation is a big reason why the Colorado Avalanche look like such a juggernaut right now. The Andre Burakovsky trade and extension, the Val Nichushkin signing, and the most impactful one of all, the addition of Devon Toews for just two-second round picks.
Of course, that’s before even mentioning the Nikita Zadorov for Brandon Saad and Chris Bigras for Ryan Graves swaps, or the Matt Duchene trade that brought the Avalanche Samuel Girard and Bowen Byram. Over the last few years, Colorado has really put on a masterclass performance on how to build a team back up from playoff irrelevancy.
Sinking the kind of money that would be required to retain Jones long-term, a player who does have holes in his game that reduce his effectiveness significantly, isn’t the way to get ahead in this league. It’s especially not how when it looks like the salary cap may remain stagnant for a while.
Finally, I don’t think you can ever rule out a potential change of scenery having a big effect on a player’s performance — but this would be one hell of an expensive bet to make. One that the Flyers shouldn’t look to make, especially with better trade options still potentially available.