Caleb Jones ready to compete for spot on Oilers blue line

Edmonton Oilers prospect Caleb Jones. (Twitter/@EdmontonOilers)

EDMONTON — They say that prospects don’t progress in a straight line, but rather like a graph, with spikes and dips.

And so we bring you Caleb “Spike” Jones, the basketball player’s son who looked like a slam dunk to end up in AHL Bakersfield this season.

Not so fast, says Bakersfield head coach Jay Woodcroft, who watched Jones pump home two goals and add two assists in a 9-1 mismatch between the Oilers rookies and a local college all-star team from NAIT and Grant MacEwan Tuesday night.

“I think he’s in the mix (in Edmonton),” Woodcroft said of Jones. “He has a year of professional hockey under his belt, he put a lot of really good work in over the summer. If he keep progressing through rookie camp, he is in the mix, for sure.”

It’s the message Jones has been getting ever since he arrived in Edmonton, fresh off a long summer of training with his older brother, Columbus blueliner Seth Jones. Paul Coffey made it clear to Caleb: he may be only 21 years old, but the time has come to compete for an NHL job.

“He’s the one guy who said, ‘You’ve got to come in here with the mindset that you’re going to steal a job,” Jones said of Coffey, the Oilers skills and development coach. “He’s the one who first told me, ‘You’ve got to believe you’re the best, every time.’”

You’ve likely heard the story on Jones, whose father Ronald “Popeye” Jones played 11 NBA seasons and currently is an assistant coach with the Indiana Pacers. He’s that kid, like Oiler Darnell Nurse, who grew up around professional athletes, and now is trying to make his way as one himself.

He watched Popeye as a kid, but really, it’s Seth that paves the way for Caleb now, a second-year pro who looks ready to take a step this winter.

“I’ve seen it from a young age, just how hard guys have to work to stay at a high level. You can consider that an advantage, if you wanted to,” said Caleb, who lived at home in Dallas with Seth for the summer, where they trained together. “Every day, no matter how he feels, he’s at the gym. He works hard, puts in the effort, and he’s just gotten better every year. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Every young prospect, or at least the successful ones, figure it out eventually: At this level everyone is skilled, so if you’re not in absolutely top shape, you don’t have a prayer of standing out.

Both Jones and Ethan Bear got the message last spring and wowed their bosses with their fitness results this camp. With Andrej Sekera (Achilles) out for a half a season, and perhaps Nurse missing camp on a contract holdout, it’s a good time for a young defenceman to shine here.

Jones held the puck patiently, rather than shoot it into a defender’s shin pad, circled the net and tucked home a wraparound in the second period. Then he delayed, before rifling home a wrist shot in the third.

He’s very mobile, with decent size (six-foot-one, 194 lb.), and can really skate. At least against opponents of this calibre, Jones shows the ability to walk the blue line, improving a shooting angle so he can get his shot through to the net.

He played on a pairing with Evan Bouchard Tuesday, a sight we may see again some day, as the Oilers finally begin to build a stockpile of young defencemen with a real chance to play.

“I don’t believe I’m far,” Jones said. “There are still things in my game I’ve got to work on — but little things. I think I can skate well, at an NHL level, to jump up in the play and create offence. But really trying to simplify my game is something.

“Confidence is a huge thing,” he said. “You hear it a lot, but it really makes a huge difference. I put in the work. I’m in a little better shape. I’m faster. I worked on my skating even more trying to become a more dynamic skater. I feel confident that I can push for a spot.”

You hear it everywhere today. If you can skate, you have a chance.

“His gift is that he can really skate,” agreed Woodcroft. “He has things to work on, just like every young player, but through the first three, four days of camp here, he has to feel real good about himself … to come in, top shape, and really push for a spot here in Edmonton.”

Another smart trait for a young kid trying to make his way? Listening — like when Coffey speaks.

“He actually got me to use a shorter stick, and that’s helped me out a lot,” said Jones, who sawed nearly an inch off his sticks prior to summer training. “You get lower, and you have better control of the puck, shooting and stickhandling.”

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