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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb Jones Feeling Confident Again

Very few NHL career paths have a smooth, consistent trajectory. Most of them are filled with peaks and valleys and more potholes than an Edmonton street in spring.

The list of players, even some Hall of Famers, who had early success, only to struggle the following season, is long. Consistency is very hard to capture, especially in a league where your opponents are trying to shatter your confidence every shift.

Quinn Hughes had an excellent rookie season last year, but has struggled though his first 37 games this season. Hall of Famer Brian Leetch won the Calder trophy in 1989, but the following season his production dipped and he finished -18. The next year he rebounded with 88 points and the next season he finished with 102 points and was +25. Even some of the greats have dips early in their careers.

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Young Oilers blueliner Caleb Jones entered this season with a great opportunity and his own high expectations. He wanted to fill the void left by Oscar Klefbom, but the season didn’t start how he wanted and he eventually found himself in and out of the lineup. However, the past few games he is skating and moving the puck how he wants and admitted his confidence is back.

“I think that it’s been a little bit of an up and down season,” said Jones. “Obviously, it’s not going the way that I had hoped that it would. At the same time, I think I’m going to have a good long career and I think this year has really helped me identify some holes in my game that I need to address and I have been working on them in practice. The last couple of games I’ve had a couple of conversations with the D coach (Jim Playfair) and he kind of just said to get your swagger and confidence back kind of like you had in Junior.

“I’ve gone out there and when I’m really flowing and playing my game, I have a lot of confidence with the puck, and I make a lot of plays. Most of the time they work out, sometimes they won’t, but the key for me is to be consistent and always making those good plays and just living with them. The last couple of games I’ve been doing that and I’m starting to feel comfortable out there and hopefully I can keep building that for the rest of the year until the playoffs,” said Jones.

Feeling comfortable and playing with confidence isn’t as simple as it sounds, or players would always exhibit those emotions on the ice. Even though Jones had decent analytics and possession numbers in his first 15 games, he didn’t look the same on the ice as last season. I asked Jones to explain how confidence can be fleeting at times.

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“There was definitely a couple of games this year where it felt like the game was going 100 miles per hour and I was kind of playing scared to make a mistake,” Jones said. “And when I play that way, I get jittery and I kind of start being indecisive and I start looking nervous out there. I’m not making plays, I’m not being smooth, I’m not defending well. And my whole game kind of came tumbling down and I kind of had to build it back up in practice. The last couple of games I’m starting to see those plays that I can make in the neutral zone and on breakouts. Confidence is definitely a big part of the game.”

You could see Jones’ confidence on the game winning goal by Devin Shore against Ottawa. Jones used his lateral movement, walked the line quickly and put the puck in a spot Shore could deflect it. Zero hesitation and his head was up looking to make a play the moment he got the puck.

“Yeah, you’re bang on for sure,” said Jone. “When I really start flowing like that, things just kind of happen naturally. I don’t really think too much about what I’m doing, I just have the confidence and swagger to make good plays. When they don’t work, I go right back to the bench, I come out, and I believe in myself that I can make whatever play I try, and I try it again and that’s part of me and [Ethan Bear] Bearsy’s game. We’ve been kind of going through things (struggles) a little bit this year, but we both are coming out of it. Bearsy is playing well and I’m starting to get my confidence back and I think that together we can keep growing and become a really good D pair together.”

FIXING HIS GAME…

Mar 3, 2020; Dallas, Texas, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Caleb Jones (82) in action during the game between the Stars and the Oilers at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jones mentioned he started rebuilding his game in practice with the help of his D coach Jim Playfair. I asked him what was step one in the process.

“We had a few video sessions that helped show the hesitation,” said Jones. But I’d say the biggest help for me recently was when he said, ‘Bring your game from Junior, and bring it to the NHL. Bring that confidence and swagger.’ He said the same thing to me last year actually when [Oscar Klefbom] Klef went down and I kind of had to play there with [Adam Larsson] Lars. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to do, not trying to play without making any mistakes, just kind of playing my game, and know that I am a good player, I can make really good plays and I can be a really good D in this league. When I play with that belief and I keep growing my game every night, I believe I can be a really good player for a long time.”

While Jones saw his on-ice confidence dip early in the season, he never lost the belief that he will be a productive NHL player for a long time. Very few players have instant and long lasting success in the NHL. It is a process, and it is challenging for young defenders.

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Jones just played his 82nd NHL game last Saturday. He only has one full season of NHL experience, and while he was frustrated early on, he also realizes his path isn’t much different than most young D-men.

While he has spent a lot of time focusing on his own game, he’s also enjoyed getting to watch Tyson Barrie up close. He feels he can learn a lot from Barrie’s offensive game.

“You can learn a lot offensively,” said Jones. “He knows how to activate real nicely. He plays a lot with our highly skilled guys (McDavid and Draisaitl) and produces, which isn’t easy, and you see why he’s one of the best offensive defencemen to play in the last five or six years in the league. There are certain little subtleties in his game that are tough to teach, but he’s very smart player and he’s obviously really talented. I watch when he activates and how he gets his shots through from the point. And it’s pretty impressive to see.”

What specific subtleties has he focused on?

“He’s really good at activating in that kind of fourth man ice, that second wave,” Jones explained. “He knows when the forwards are in the zone, and has very good timing on when to engage. His timing at the right moment to find the soft ice right at the top of the slot and get a nice shot off. That’s probably one of the things that he’s best at. He’s not too far off in the rush, and then he times it really well on when to engage. That’s really impressive how he does that.”

Barrie has played 596 games, but he didn’t have instant offensive success. It was in his fourth season, after playing 106 games over his first three seasons, that he became an elite offensive defenseman.

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Jones likely won’t become an elite offensive defender, as they are rare, but he has the skillset to be a solid contributor at both ends of the ice. Jones knows his strengths, and he is also acutely aware of the Oilers roster and how the addition of Dmitry Kulikov will only add to the competition for icetime.

He’s ready for it.

“I think that competition is good no matter what. It’s a healthy competition,” said Jones. “We are all good friends, and it’s pro sports, that is just how it is. I’ve grown up around it, I’ve seen it, if you’re not playing well, it’s next man up.

“My dad is a coach and he told me he always asked his players: What have you done for me lately? He really doesn’t care what you’ve done for him a month ago, or two months ago — what did you do for him last night? So, you have to make sure that you are on your “A” game all of the time. Something I’ve had to learn this year is being more consistent and making sure I’m bringing my game every night.

“I think I’m on a good road to doing that.”

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