Towards the end of the bitterly disappointing 2018-19 season, Chris Drury, the general manager of the Hartford Wolf Pack, welcomed four players from the ranks of college hockey to his roster. Lewis Zerter-Gossage (Hartford), Ryan Dmowski (UMass-Lowell), and Shawn McBridge (AIC) were all brought in on amateur tryouts. But before those ATOs were handed out, Drury signed North Dakota standout Nick Jones to a two-year AHL contract.
Jones is a 5-foot-11 forward who is capable of playing both wing and center. He does not possess great speed, but has a good feel for the game and has been celebrated for his work ethic everywhere he’s played. A faceoff specialist, Jones is a natural leader. If he hadn’t joined the Fighting Hawks as a junior, he likely would have ended his tenure there with a “C” on the front of his jersey.
In other words, there’s almost zero chance that Jones will become the next Jonathan Marchessault. In fact, there are precious few success stories for players who have taken the path that Jones currently finds himself on, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. On paper, he has a lot of the tools he needs to be a good solid checking line forward at the professional level — he just has to get there first.
Jones scored two goals, picked up a secondary assist, and registered 14 SOG in his first 10 games of pro hockey with the Wolf Pack. Taking a closer look at those numbers reveals that two of his three points were picked up at even strength, where Hartford broke even in goal differential when he was on the ice. That, in and of itself, was an impressive feat considering just how bad the Wolf Pack were this year.
So, how did Jones find himself finishing the 2018-19 season playing hockey with the Wolf Pack on an amateur contract?
Back in March, SB Nation’s Chris Dilks ranked Jones eighth in his list of the top 2019 NCAA Free Agents. Eight of Chris’ top 10 free agents signed NHL deals shortly after his piece went up; Jones and Bowling Green rising junior Max Johnson were the exceptions. Here is what Chris had to say about Jones’ game:
Jones has been slowed a bit this season due to injury, and he has been forced into more of a play-making role for the Fighting Hawks out of necessity. But when he is healthy and at his best, he is one of the most effective centers in college hockey due to his toughness and grit. He’s great at winning one-on-one battles for pucks on both ends of the ice, plays excellent defense, and drives possession with his ability to make small plays in tough areas.
Jones led North Dakota in goals as a junior and probably would have led them again as a senior if not for the injuries that clipped his season down by 11 games. Before he signed with the Wolf Pack, Jones had 20 points in 26 games in his final collegiate season. Impressively, he finished third on North Dakota in even strength scoring despite his injuries. It was an impressive showing in his second year with the team.
Nick Jones with the OT winner sends North Dakota to the Frozen Faceoff.pic.twitter.com/yK2mQgfdk0— NCAA Ice Hockey (@NCAAIceHockey) March 11, 2018
Jones began his collegiate hockey career at the Ohio State University. However, just three games into his sophomore season he left the Buckeyes due to concerns about his development.
“It was my sophomore year, and I felt I was not developing at the rate I wanted to,” Jones told the Dakota Student back in October 2017. “I just wasn’t enjoying myself there as much as I had been in the past. I thought I was still in a situation where I could go back to juniors, and find a new place that fit better.”
Jones, an Alberta native, decided to go back to juniors and play in the BCHL with the Penticton Vees. In his first year with the Vees, he played with coveted NHL prospects Dante Fabbro and Tyson Jost. He was fifth on the team in scoring that year despite missing 16 games. If we measure by points per games played, he was third on the team behind Jost and Scott Conway.
In 2016-17, Jones led the Vees in scoring in the regular season and piled up 27 points in 21 postseason games on the way to Penticton’s 2017 Fred Page Cup victory. The next season he returned to college hockey with North Dakota where, as we’ve already discussed, he made an immediate impact.
The biggest strikes against Jones are his skating and his injury history. Undoubtedly, both contributed to him ending up with an amateur contract instead of an ELC.
There’s no doubt that Jones is the kind of player that will bust through a brick wall if it means winning a puck battle, but heart alone is not enough to get him a ticket to the show. Because he lacks NHL-caliber speed, he is going to need to prove himself by playing a 200-foot game, rattling the boards, staying healthy, and piling up points in the AHL next season.
Fortunately for Jones, he is a fresh face on a Wolf Pack team that has been in desperate need of some new blood. The first thing that Jones will want to do next season is measure up to or eclipse Jake Elmer and fellow NCHC alumni Patrick Newell. If he can do that, he could be well on his way to punching a ticket for himself to a nice career in the AHL with his leadership traits and relentless style of play. But it’s safe to assume that Jones wants more than that.
If you didn’t do it after reading the first paragraph, there’s a good chance that while you read this piece you wondered why a player like Jones warranted a 900-word write-up late in May. It’s not because we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel and waiting for the 2019 Draft to arrive. It’s because the Wolf Pack need a complete overhaul.
With John Davidson now in place as the team’s president, players with something to prove like Jones could be essential ingredients in turning things around in Hartford. Maybe Jones will end up in the ECHL, or maybe he’ll wash out in end up in Europe. Or perhaps he’ll prove himself to be part of the mortar that holds together a team that’s searching for a new identity. He’s a long shot, but nothing is impossible, especially in sports.
So, was Jones a good no-risk, low-reward gamble for Drury and the Wolf Pack? We’ll soon find out.