Seth Jones embracing imminent role as Blackhawks’ cornerstone through rebuild
“For me, we need to build for the future,” said Jones, whose eight-year contract extension hasn’t even kicked in yet. “We have to start doing the necessary things now.”
ST. LOUIS — Seth Jones knows he’s in this for the long run.
Because as he looks around at the Blackhawks — an organization essentially starting their rebuild from rock bottom — he does so as perhaps the most locked-in member of the organization at any level.
While interim general manager Kyle Davidson and interim coach Derek King lay the foundation for this long-term project, they’re keenly aware they might not be around for much of it — and might be out of their current roles within weeks or months. King has acknowledged that publicly several times.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the remaining members of the team’s core, have only slightly more stability. They’re deep into the second-to-last years of their contracts.
Jones finds himself in a radically different spot. His eight-year contract extension, which theoretically will keep him in Chicago until 2030, hasn’t even kicked in yet.
And that certainty about his situation allows him to contemplate and embrace a bigger-picture perspective about the Hawks’ situation than many of his peers can afford to think about.
“For me, we need to build for the future,” he said Friday. “We have to start doing the necessary things now. We’re obviously not out of it this season — we can get on a heater here — but for the years moving forward, [we need to establish] the way we want to play and hold each other accountable in all areas of the ice and build that trust in the team. What we do these next 30-something games will transfer into next year and the year after.”
Even if the Hawks rack up, say, 45 points in their 36 post-All-Star-break games — a stretch that started with a win Wednesday against the Oilers and continues Saturday against the Blues — it wouldn’t be enough to lift them anywhere close to playoff contention. That’s how deep the hole is after earning just 39 points in their first 46 games.
But doing so would generate some chemistry, optimism and momentum that just might carry over to 2022-23.
“It’s a culture thing,” Jones said. “Off the ice, your camaraderie together affects how you play together on the ice. We had a lot of new faces this year in our [locker] room, myself included, so it took time. Going forward, we’re going to be that much more familiar with each other. [That’ll help], when it comes to the fall of next year and the year after, to try to build back to that playoff team.”
“It just starts with accountability, knowing that everyone is going to do the right thing every time we’re on the ice — playing for each other, blocking shots, protecting our goalie, things like that. It’s the little things that help the team come together and bond.”
Of course, Jones came to Chicago expecting to play for a resurgent contender after years stuck in the Blue Jackets’ own cycle of mediocrity. In July, he surely imagined 45 points after the All-Star break would lift the Hawks from bubble team to top-four seed, not just create a silver lining in a lost season.
Instead, he has endured yet another mediocre-at-best season. He insists, though, he’s willing to stay patient through the coming rebuild.
“We’re all in this together,” he said. “If a couple guys aren’t in it, the whole thing falls apart. I’m willing to do my part in that, whichever role I need to play in this whole scheme. There’s been a lot of things happening this year in our organization, and hockey is one thing we can just go out and do well and work hard [at].”
The Hawks will need Jones to be a leader — perhaps even their cornerstone player — through the rocky times ahead, especially once Toews and Kane are gone.
The past few weeks, with Toews absent in the concussion protocol, have provided a preview of what that will be like. So as the team tries to build momentum down the stretch, Jones said his top priority will be expanding and solidifying his leadership skills, hoping to become more outspoken.
“I’m trying to fill that void,” he said. “Our room is pretty unique, actually, where everyone says what they feel. That’s actually the first thing Toews said this year in camp: ‘It’s our team, so if you have something to say in the room, you can say it, no matter how many games you’ve played.’ That has been good. But when I want to say something, I do — whether it’s for the team or one-on-one with a guy, helping him out in practice or a game.”
He has reflected on the best leaders he has played with — naming Shea Weber, Mike Fisher, Paul Gaustad and Pekka Rinne with the Predators and Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and Scott Hartnell with the Jackets — and what made them so effective. Those influences have helped him “put piece by piece together” to develop his own leadership style.
The coaching staff, meanwhile, has challenged Jones to force himself outside his comfort zone as a leader even more than he already has.
“This is where he needs to improve his game,” King said. “It’s not always on the ice; it’s off the ice. He is a leader — he puts a lot of pressure on himself that way. But he still can be a little bit more vocal and challenge the other guys. We have young guys who need to learn, and what better way [is there] to learn than from another player?”
After all, it looks like the Hawks might be Jones’ team in a few years.
Added King: “I just was more saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to take over here.’ ”