Seth Jones' Achilles Heel

A case study in defensive skating

Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets is one of the best young defensemen in the NHL.

Right?

The 25-year-old American ticks all the boxes in terms of size (6’4”), handedness (RH) and skill.

Two seasons ago he put up 57 points including 16 goals.

He is dynamic with the puck and is a frequent contributor on DZ breakouts and OZ entries.

Jones does the big things extremely well. But his overall effectiveness as a defenseman is spoiled by one small thing he doesn’t do well at all.

Basic fighter maneuvers (BFM) are actions that a fighter aircraft makes during air combat maneuvering, historically known as dogfighting

Basic fighter maneuvers consist of many varying tactical turns, rolls, and other actions to get behind or above an enemy, before the opponent can do the same…

BFM also relies on the pilot's understanding of the geometry of pursuit within the three-dimensional arena, where different angles of approach can cause different rates of closure. The fighter pilot uses these angles not only to get within a range where weapons can be used, but also to avoid overshooting, which consists either of flying out in front of the opponent, called a "wingline overshoot", or crossing the enemy's flight path, called a "flight path overshoot".

(Wikipedia)

Fighter pilots and hockey defensemen don’t appear to share much in common. But the best and most successful individuals in both fields have a deep understanding of the importance of using the correct speed and angle when attacking an opponent.

Air combatants seek to get on each other’s tails and deliver a kill shot.

A defenseman looks to close the gap with the puck carrier, then kill the play.

We call this process check attachment. And the gold standard for check attachment is Minnesota’ Jared Spurgeon.

When defending the rush, Spurgeon employs a savant blend of lead, pure and lag pursuit to gradually match speeds and angle with his check. He uses one or two crossovers early in the sequence to bear down on his man, then relies on his elite glide to finesse his approach. He holds his “flight path” with a strong upright posture until the puck carrier runs out of options and forces a play. Then he pounces.

In contrast Jones’ check attachment is not good at all. In fact if you only evaluate his defensive play through this prism you would be shocked that he’s averaging over 25 minutes a game for an NHL team.

From a young age defensemen are taught not to cross their feet when defending 1v1, as a skilled and savvy forward can exploit that brief moment of imbalance by cutting to the middle for a high-danger chance.

Jones seems to have internalized that teaching well, like Spurgeon. However his inferior glide potential (due to having more of his weight on his heels rather than the front third of his skate blades) means that soon he will need to pivot from backward to forward skating in order to keep up with the puck carrier. As with crossovers, pivots temporarily puts a D-man in a vulnerable position where he cannot react to a forward’s change of direction.

Jones’ way of masking his inferior glide, then, is to play a looser gap across the neutral zone. This allows him to take an extra backward crossover to match speed or to pivot to forward skating while still protecting the middle of the ice. But this also destroys his ability to deny the blue line. Whereas Spurgeon attaches and kills plays early, Jones lets the other team enter his DZ, where more bad things can happen.

In DZ coverage Spurgeon waltzes gracefully with his counterpart, mirroring his every move and rarely straying more than a stick length away. His masterful defensive footwork allows him to keep a still mind, scan his surroundings and be first to react to a change of possession.

Meanwhile it’s a fire drill in Jones’ head. He darts in and out of passing lanes and switches coverage in hopes of breaking up a play with his stick and going on offense. Sometimes the gambit works and he gets a piece of the puck. But more often the opposing team is able to cycle, keep Jones’ side pinned and create a shot attempt.

Whenever Columbus does regain possession, Jones’ speed and skill allows him to spearhead the breakout and play to his strengths. But from the red line-in without the puck, it’s tough sledding for the highly-touted D.

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