Last season, late in training camp, Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett skated up to Ethan Bear and uttered four words, “Knock, knock. Opportunity awaits.” Tippett said that after Joel Persson was injured late in preseason. Little did he know Bear would be called upon to the be the Oilers top-pair right defender one week later after Adam Larsson was injured in the regular season opener.
This season, opportunity knocks for Caleb Jones due to Oscar Klefbom’s injury, and Jones is ready for the challenge.
Unlike Bear, who was thrust into his role with no warning or preparation, Jones has known for a few months that Klefbom’s spot in the top-four was up for grabs, and Jones came to camp with the mindset to win the job.
“Obviously, it sucks when one of your top guys goes down like Klef,” said Jones. “But it’s like you said, you look at the depth chart and when you see opportunity like that, it doesn’t come around often. It (opportunity) has been in my head through the off-season. I’ve been pretty focused on coming in here and play up to my capabilities. Like you said, I had a good experience last year, 43 games, but I think I’m ready to take another step forward to where I can contribute on an every night basis, be consistent and be a really good player in the league.”
Jones played 43 games last season, after skating in 17 games as a rookie in 2018/2019, and I asked him which areas of his game has he improved the most.
“I think that I cut out some of the big mistakes I was making my first go around,” said Jones. :As a rookie I think I was just playing, kind of using my instincts and that helped me a lot through those 17 games, but I realized there are certain things that I needed to eliminate from my game. It took me a little bit to get those out, but once I kind of got going in the second half, I started to get really comfortable with the team, the systems and the coaches and I kind of started to see the player I could be and playing my game. The way that I like to play, I play with a lot of pace, get my feet moving up the ice, skate the puck, join the rush and those are all things that I like to incorporate in my game. I’m looking forward to showing those things in camp.”
This morning Jones was paired with Adam Larsson. He and Larsson played nine games together last season when Klefbom was resting his nagging shoulder injury and Jones performed well. Things could change before January 13th, but with such a short camp I envision Jones starting the season with Larsson. Being with Larsson, who is the defensive conscience, Jones will be the one asked to join the rush, which is what he likes to do.
He’s always been a mobile defender, and this season the addition of Tyson Barrie should help a young defender like Jones. Jones will get a front row seat to watch how, and when, Barrie jumps up into the play. Barrie is one of the best defenders in the NHL at joining the rush.
“He’s obviously been around for a while in Colorado and Toronto,” said Jones about Barrie. “He’s put up a lot of points in his career. He knows what he’s talking about in terms of the offensive end of the game. It is going to be great for all of us young guys to see what he does and talk to him.”
The one advantage Jones has on Barrie is he’s played with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. He’s been able to see their tendencies firsthand, and I asked him the differences he sees in how or where he joins the rush when they are on the ice.
“When you are on the ice with either of them, the first option is you are looking for where they are on the ice. You usually give them the puck and something good is going to happen. I would say that with Leon it is a little bit easier to jump up because you kind of know that he can make some pretty special passes on his backhand and forehand. If you’re using your offensive instincts, you can kind of find something to hold and he will usually find you and give you the puck and likely leads to a good opportunity. With Connor you usually move to him, and he’s so fast and dangerous that usually he finds a way to create an opportunity himself. I would say that Leon is a little more pull off and try to find guys a little more, but Connor will try to make something happen on his own.”
The biggest challenge for Jones, and every NHL player this season, will be finding a way to ensure they are ready to play after an abbreviated training camp with no preseason games. Jones discussed how he plans to be ready for opening night next Wednesday.
“That’s a great question. No one has really had a 10-day camp and then gone right into the regular season. For myself personally, I would like to get as much playing situations and scrimmages in as possible. You don’t want to be thinking too much out there, just kind of let your instincts rule your game. Make sure that your legs are in shape, and you’re sharp with all of your passing and hopefully that’s enough,” said Jones.
While Barrie will take all of Klefbom’s powerplay minutes, Jones will be looked upon to eat up his 5×5 minutes and even some on the penalty kill.
“I’ve Pk’d a lot in the American League and in Junior,” said Jones, “My first callup I got a little PK time and I didn’t have much last year, but there are definitely some details that I’ve had to study. I got to work on it in practice last year, going against our power play which is pretty good power play (laughs), so it was tough to kill that power play, but that was good practice for me to try to really focus on it and work on it. If I get that opportunity I feel ready that I can step in and contribute.”
Tippett didn’t skate up to Jones and offer up the same knock, knock comment today, because he sees Jones as a more established player today than Bear was early last season.
“Jonesy was around a little more last year, so he’s a bit further ahead,” said Tippett. “But there certainly is an opportunity ahead of him and he’s recognized it. He’s come to camp in great shape, and hopefully he takes advantage of that. He’s a young player, and especially on defence it takes time to get your feel and get comfortable out there. Now you can see he’s playing as a confident NHL player, instead of a player just hoping to make the team. When a player gets to that level usually you get the best out of him. He had a real strong day today, first day of camp he was a really good player.
What area does Tippett see the most potential in Jones’ game?
“His strengths and his talents continue to improve, but the maturity in his game…there are little things that need to happen when you make a play, when you push the issue or just stay within the game and not try to overdo things. There is a maturity in his game on the thought process that I think has improved, and it has made him a better player and it has given him the opportunity to be a full-time NHL player,” said Tippett.
Jones looked very confident today. He was up in the rush, and what stood out most for me today was his assertiveness with the puck and when he was defending in his own zone. He closed gaps quickly, and used his skating ability to his advantage.
He looks poised to take advantage of the wonderful opportunity that awaits starting January 13th.
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