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Rising defenseman lifts Winterhawks to finals

Top-ranked Jones could help make Portland history


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Seth Jones led the U.S. to the gold medal at the World Junior Championships this season, and the prospective NHL No. 1 draft pick has helped the Portland Winterhawks reach the Western Hockey League finals for the third year in a row.With an entire Western Hockey League season and three playoff rounds behind him, Portland Winterhawks star defenseman Seth Jones has lived up to his billing as the best junior player in the world and the expected No. 1 pick in the upcoming NHL draft.

What has been the most pleasantly surprising thing about Jones?

His humility.

“He’s a great hockey player and, when you’re rated as high as he is, you almost don’t have to talk about his hockey skills. Everyone has already dissected them,” Portland coach Travis Green says.

“He’s a really good kid. He’s not cocky, he’s not arrogant. He’s a confident young man. Very mature. I’m impressed with how he handles himself with the media and with our team.”

Captain and fellow defenseman Troy Rutkowski says that since Jones joined the Winterhawks, the much-hyped prospect has been nothing less than an ideal teammate.

“Sometimes you just sit and watch him on the ice and it’s, ‘Holy crap, he’s only 18!’ ” Rutkowski says. “And, how he handles himself off the ice ... he’s a treat to be around. He’s got a great work ethic. I can’t say enough about the kid. He has everything going for him right now.”

Now the best junior player in the world gets the opportunity to help the Winterhawks take the next step to hockey greatness. The Hawks have home-ice advantage and get their rematch with Edmonton in the WHL finals, which starts Friday and Saturday with games at the Rose Garden. The winner — which was the Oil Kings last year in Game 7 on home ice — goes to the Memorial Cup, a spot denied the WHL-runner-up Hawks the past two seasons.

Portland has played consistently good hockey in the 2013 playoffs, going 12-3. In their last series, against Kamloops, the Hawks overcame a 5-1 Game 3 loss with two solid efforts to close out the Blazers.

Most, if not all, of the Winterhawk players are playing some of their best hockey of the season, including big No. 3, the 6-4, 205-pound Jones.

Jones played in 61 regular-season games, scoring 14 goals with 42 assists for 56 points and a plus-46 rating — a season in which he also helped lead the United States to victory in the World Junior Championships. In the playoffs, he has five goals and eight assists for 13 points and a plus-11 rating.

It’s what star players are supposed to do — play their best at the most important time. On cue, Jones has stepped it up.

“I feel better with how I’m playing right now,” he says. “My teammates are making it easy for me. ... I’m playing with a lot more speed, not just physically as in skating fast, but getting rid of the puck quicker and making quicker decisions and stuff.”

Jones smells the prize, the WHL championship.

“Everyone wants to be a winner,” he says. “Fortunately, I’ve won three gold medals now (with U.S. teams). I know what it takes. A lot of guys on this team have been to the finals a couple times and lost. They know what it takes to win.”

It’s too easy to say that Jones could be the missing piece to Portland’s championship puzzle. He has been a difference-maker, but the Hawks have such depth, skill and experience — and a veteran goalie in Mac Carruth — that keys to success have been many. But it didn’t hurt adding Jones, who opted not to join the Everett Silvertips. Everett sent Jones’ rights to Portland, and Jones quickly committed to play this season.

Jones’ status isn’t discussed much in the locker room, perhaps because Portland has been loaded with pro-caliber players in the past four seasons.

“I just try to focus on hockey,” says Jones, who grew up in Texas and is the son of former NBA player Ronald “Popeye” Jones, an assistant coach with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. “It’s a fun sport. I try to focus my best on the team, putting team before individual goals and successes. We’re doing a great job this year, and hopefully we’ll keep it going.”

Not that playing in the WHL for the Winterhawks hasn’t been challenging. The junior hockey schedule (and travel) has been more intense and rigorous than anything he played before. He saw action in 96 games in 2010-11 with U.S. development and national teams and 78 in 2011-12. But, traversing through the WHL, not to mention the intensity of world juniors, has been difficult. He has played 83 regular-season/playoff/U.S. games.

“I didn’t really hit a wall,” he says, “but probably a few speed bumps. I had a few (bad) games; everyone has slumps in a season this long. Everyone hits speed bumps. I overcame them quickly.”

Like most premier athletes, Jones has taken care of himself, making sure to get ample rest, workouts with the team, hydration and the right diet. He says stretching has been a big thing.

“He has taken care of himself,” says Rich Campbell, Portland’s strength and conditioning coach. “That plays a role in how an athlete recovers and how well they do throughout the playoff grind.

“He comes from a (U.S.) program with good off-ice workouts. He’s got 2-3 years of good training behind him."

Portland assistant coach Kyle Gustafson says Jones, for being an elite player, has welcomed coaching and managed himself on and off the ice like a professional already.

Jones has superior skating, vision, smarts, offensive skills and, at his size, can lock down offensive players with long arms and leverage and physical talents befitting the son of an ex-NBA player.

So, the time has come for Jones to help lift the Winterhawks to the promised land, which would be the best sendoff for somebody who is likely to be feted as the No. 1 NHL pick and head to the Colorado Avalanche in coming months.

“You’re talking about a guy who’s going to go No. 1 in the world,” Green says. “He’s a special player. He’s not going to be a ‘miss.’ He’s going to play in the NHL. What impresses me is, if he walked into an NHL locker room right now, he’d fit right in, because of the way he can communicate and talk among adults and not get rattled in intense situations.”