EDMONTON — When last we saw Caleb Jones he was, well, devastated.
An Edmonton Oilers comeback had been in the works that January night against the Calgary Flames, when Jones flipped some weak sauce across to his defence partner. The puck was picked out of the air by Mikael Backlund and deposited behind Mikko Koskinen. Game over.
He’d been up from Bakersfield for 16 games, and typical of the thin-rostered Oilers, Jones’s playing time had stretched past 22 minutes to 23, and even 24 — the breaking point for a 21-year-old defenceman that inevitably ends badly.
And badly it did that day against the Flames.
"I think that’s the difference between an NHL player and an American League player," Jones said after that game. "I’ll learn from it though."
Seth Jones’s little brother chuckled about that play on Thursday morning, back in Edmonton and set to begin his second stint with the team that drafted him in the fourth round in 2015.
"I was on a plane pretty quickly after that," he said, having lasted one more game before hopping on the bullet train to Bakersfield. "You’re down, pressing for a goal, I tried a backhand over to my D partner. Next time, maybe you chip it out. Live to fight another day, right? Those are things you learn by trial and error.
"It’s a learning process," he said. "I won’t make that play again."
Jones stands as a metaphor for what has begun to happen here in Edmonton, a team that in recent years has failed to draft enough legit NHL prospects, and systemically rushed those that they did accrue. He has played 124 games in the American Hockey League, and today Jones is a 22-year-old, third-year pro who is ready for Thursday night’s assignment.
With Brandon Manning going on injured reserve, the call-up isn’t some green 20-year-old who has played the opening 13 games of the Bakersfield season. Instead, it is Jones, who has made his mistakes along the way, gone back to the minors to correct them, and returns as a confident, competent player with a chance to stick in the NHL.
"Let’s see," said head coach Dave Tippett. "It’s up to the player to play well. If he does, he forces our hand."
The book on Jones — who comes from the family that gave the sporting world NBA player Popeye Jones, Caleb’s dad, and brother Seth, a Columbus defenceman — is that he is NHL ready. "Over ripe" on the farm, is the term Oilers GM Ken Holland likes to use.
"I think I’m ready for this level and I think I can be a really good player here. I’m ready to show it," said Jones, a left-hand shot who will play the right side next to Oscar Klefbom Thursday night against the dangerous Colorado Avalanche. "When you first come up, you’re just really excited. Your eyes are wide.
"I know what to expect, and I expect myself to perform well at this level. I believe I can play here for the rest of the year and be effective."
His time in the minors has supplied Jones with the confidence required to play at the NHL level. As opposed to all those kids who have come up and simply hoped to survive at this level, one they know they were not yet ready for.
That’s what 100-plus games in the AHL does for as player. It provides a foundation on which confidence can be built. "Eventually, you get to the point where you feel like you’re a really effective player," Jones said. "A good player at that level, against that calibre. You get wiser, you get older, you get stronger."
It’s funny: that 2015 draft supplied Connor McDavid at No. 1 overall, a no-brainer of a pick. With the second and third picks dealt away for Griffin Reinhart and David Perron, the Oilers used a pick acquired from Montreal for Jeff Petry to get Jones in Round 4. Then they picked a kid named Ethan Bear in the fifth round, and their six-round choice, John Marino, is currently playing 21 minutes per night on Pittsburgh’s blue line.
If Jones plays, and we truly believe he will, that’s three NHL defencemen drafted in Rounds 4, 5 and 6. Stellar.
And the head amateur scout who built the list for such a savvy draft? His name was Stu MacGregor.
He was fired by Edmonton five days before that 2015 draft occurred.