With just seven NHL games with the Edmonton Oilers on his resume since being recalled from Bakersfield of the AHL, we still don’t have any definitive read on how good Caleb Jones might be one day, but coach Ken Hitchcock knows what he sees now, and you can color him impressed.
“I see a helluva player,” Hitchcock said before the Oilers jumped a jet to Phoenix to open a four-game road trip against the Coyotes tonight. “There’s something un-coachable here and that’s calmness under fire. When you see him under hard pressure, he makes a calm play, and that’s hard to teach.
“You’ve got that or you don’t have it. He’s got it and it’s a great quality because it’s a great quality he’s going to carry for the rest of his life. Man, he’s a good player.” You can see Hitchcock’s full availability here.
With the Oilers having lost six straight games to slide out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference as they face the Coyotes, I can’t think of a better attribute than calmness under fire because there’s been plenty of that with Hitchcock trying to ice a good enough blueline group without Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell.
Jones, selected 117th overall in the 2015 Entry draft, was called up to fill a hole on a blueline that’s been leaking chances and goals without Klefbom and Russell. Considering he’s only 21, he hasn’t looked out of place since being paired on the left side in a tandem with Adam Larsson. He’s playing about 18 minutes a night so far.
There’s obviously going to be rough spots in the road with a blueline prospect who is only 21, but to this point Jones, the brother of Seth Jones and the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, hasn’t looked particularly overmatched or overwhelmed during a six-game skid in which the Oilers have allowed 29 goals. He skates well. He moves the puck. For a player who was taken in the fourth round, he looks like a diamond in the rough.
With Russell due back any day now and the acquisition of Alex Petrovic and Brandon Manning to bolster the blueline, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Jones. The assumption when he got the call-up was that he’d be a stop-gap who’d be sent back when Hitchcock had enough healthy bodies to choose from, but I’m not so sure about that now.
At the very least, it seems to me that Jones has earned a longer look, even if he doesn’t get the 18 minutes a night that he’s been playing to this point. If he struggles or has his minutes cut too much once Russell and Klefbom return, you send him back down to the Condors feeling good about his first NHL cup of coffee. There’s absolutely no need to force Jones along or rush to judgment on the kid.
KASSIAN UP NEXT
With the Oilers still needing balance and to coax more goals from a group of wingers whose hands have collectively turned to cinder blocks, it looks like Zack Kassian will get a look on the top line with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl against the Coyotes. Kassian, who has scored just 2-1-3, gets the promotion into the spot Alex Chiasson had played so well in until he got injured. He can skate and bang, but can he score?
“Speaking for myself, two goals isn’t good enough, three points,” said Kassian, who has been playing fourth-line minutes. “We can say we’ve had a good stretch of games where we were controlling the 0-zone and making plays, but we need production.”
I’d rather see Ty Rattie or Jesse Puljujarvi in that spot, and that could happen between now and game time, but Hitchcock skated Kassian there before the team left for Arizona.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- If there’s such a thing as a relatively soft stretch in the schedule, considering the Oilers just lost every game of a five-game homestand, the next six games is it. The Oilers face Arizona, Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose on the road and then play Florida and the Coyotes at home. Aside from the Sharks, no real killers in that group. I can see a 4-2 record in this stretch.
- The Oilers have gone 1-6-1 without Klefbom and Russell in the line-up.