In a Canadian market, the “Coming Home” story is always something in your back pocket. A way to sell players on choosing to play for a team based on sentimentality and nostalgia. It’s a good story: one that John Tavares bought when given the opportunity to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hockey in Texas will never get to tap into that kind of storyline. Until now.
Seth Jones, the former fourth overall pick, was born in Arlington, TX and he’s on the trade block. His history is a big, counterintuitive checklist of hockey and Big Red. His dad, Ronald Popeye Jones, played for the Dallas Mavericks back when both teams shared Reunion Arena. Meanwhile, Seth himself played for the Dallas Stars’ Bantam Major team. How cool would it be to bring an elite hockey player back to the biscuits and gravy of Texas’ stockyards he was forged in?
You hear that? That’s the sound of field crickets chirping in response. I guess, for good reason. Why would Dallas need Jones? Is there anything to indicate that the Stars are interested? They already have a lot of tough decisions coming up, between Miro Heiskanen’s new deal, John Klingberg’s next deal, whether to keep Jamie Oleksiak (something Dallas clearly wants if their rejection of Winnipeg’s offer is any indication), and more. Adding Jones to the roster, who only has one year left on his $5.4M deal, would complicate, rather than clarify, Dallas’ future blueline.
We’ll get to that later, but for now, let’s look at Seth Jones the player. He’s been the subject of controversy in the analytics community. On the ice, he looks like everything you’d want in a defenceman. He can skate, he can pass, he can shoot, and he can dumpster Tom Wilson. What’s not to love? According to the numbers: a lot.
But not so fast.
Seth Jones: Good, overrated, or something else?
Finding the best template to better understand the truth of a given phenomenon started well before mathematicians collided with old school hockey fans on player analysis. It goes all the way back to Bertrand Russell calling out the empiricists, with empiricists firing back at the rationalists about who knows what. In Seth Jones, we have a similar debate revolving around the relationship between facts and truth. Do the facts about his performance over the last several years tell us the truth about his value as a player?
Jones hasn’t had the impact you would expect out of an elite defenceman who will likely get paid like one after next season. In fact, his last three seasons have been wildly different. As a 24-year old, he showed solid growth: generating shots, suppressing shots, and helping generate goals. But over the last two seasons, his implicit offense (shot impact) has declined, while his explicit offense (goal impact) went from good to inert.
I haven’t watched a ton of Blue Jackets games. Pretending to talk intelligently about Jones’ game feels like cheating. It’s why I understand the very human reaction of feeling unconvinced by analytics as more truth than fact. A bad grade on a test will reflect a poor performance. But does it reflect poor understanding? Does it reflect our quality as students?
Maybe. Maybe not. We can only answer that question as history unfolds to accumulate more certainty. Analytics are a collection of facts, but they are not a collection of values or meaning. What would Jones’ inclusion into the Stars blueline mean for Dallas’ future performance?
Thankfully Charlie O’Connor over at The Athletic, pondering the same question but from a Flyers perspective, tracked down Alison Lukan, who has covered Jones on the beat but also respects the insight numbers can offer. The cliffs notes:
- Jones’ partner, Zach Werenski, took over the kind of defensive duties that tend to show up on the stat sheet, like taking shots generated from otherwise stout defensive play (a phenomenon we saw with Heiskanen this year, which incidentally, could create a similar rift in Dallas).
- Jones has largely played in a system — with its focus on limiting shot quality over shot quantity — that isn’t likely to make a defenceman look good on the stat sheet.
- Where offense is easier to measure explicitly (goals and assists), and implicitly (GAR models, for example, that help capture residual offense), defense doesn’t have as strong a corollary.
That last part by Alison is key, and it’s something I agree with. Going back to the ‘homework’ analogy, a bad grade on a test measures performance for the test, and further, a bad grade for the semester might measure good or bad understanding of the material. But does it measure good or bad habits, and good or bad development? With offense, players are bestowed their answers in points. With defense, players must generate their own answers. It can mean good defense from good offense a la Cale Makar. Or it can mean good defense from good defense a la Drew Doughty in his prime. Regardless, it’s no wonder that most Norris Trophy winners tend to be older. Jones is still just 26.
Analytics are important. There’s a reason why the league’s most elite teams have invested in them. They’re important as much for what they tell us as what they don’t. They help us distinguish the climate from the weather. As O’Connor points out, players like Roman Josi and Alex Pietrangelo were once boogeymen in the analytics community: players considered good, but perhaps their value was skewed more by perception than raw performance. We’ve even seen this with shot quality analysis in recent years, where rebound shots have begun to count for less in expected goal models. There’s little doubt about Josi and Pietrangelo at this point. In other words, just as the weather can change, so can the climate.
The trade (humor me)
We can talk about Jones’ value til’ the longhorns come home, but in what world does it make sense for Dallas?
Well, it doesn’t.
Dallas has a complicated blueline situation as is. Why further complicate it? As dumb as this sounds, maybe that’s exactly why. For one, it’s gonna be hard to justify giving Jamie Oleksiak the kind of money Seth Jones is making next season. Not only will Miro Heiskanen get paid, but so will Klingberg, assuming they choose to give him his (deserved) raise.
Columbus is losing a big part of their blueline. They’ll need a replacement for Jones, someone signed to term, which can potentially help combat their genuine image issue. With Max Domi out for awhile, they’ll also need some center depth as well. So I propose Esa Lindell, Jason Dickinson, and a 2021 3rd round pick for Seth Jones and a 2021 5th round pick.
Using Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections, I’m assuming Heiskanen is given full term, not a bridge deal, and all the RFA’s are brought back. Assuming Dallas offers Seattle a few picks to take Anton Khudobin, and some free agency spice, here’s an Armchair GM’s opening night roster.
Here’s my argument against: it eases the burden of two things - overpaying Oleksiak, and Lindell. And it does it while improving the blueline. There’s a major catch, of course. It doesn’t clarify Klingberg’s next contract. But then, what does? Dallas is gonna be in a bind no matter what. Here, Dallas gets to potentially make the choice between Jones and Klingberg. Meanwhile, it’s much easier to find a quality stopgap for a LHD, like Edler, than it is a RHD.
I’ve seen fans take issue with Harley ‘replacing’ Lindell because he offers offense instead of defense, which I don’t get. For one, Harley’s skills project to interlink better with Klingberg. It’s just as important to protect the puck with movement and skill as it is to play the gap away from the puck. And two, Dallas drafted Harley to be a top four defenseman. That’s where he’ll eventually play, regardless of his style. It’s not an easy decision. And it’s a risky bet no matter what. But it signals a serious push for the Cup.
As much as I talk tough, there are no easy decisions. I’m probably completely off my rocker with this. Would I actively pull the trigger on this one? Probably not. GMs don’t make decisions in a vacuum. They have jobs to keep, reputations to protect, and relationships to nourish. Jim Nill has a team that is one year removed from making the Stanley Cup Finals. Why make a big splash?
In addition, Jones’ adjusted plus-minus over the last three seasons is eerily similar to Lindell, with both having a modest impact on offense at EV, and with surprisingly average (or actively bad in Jones’ case when it comes to shot quality allowed, and in Lindell’s case, shot attempts allowed) defensive numbers that bely their reputations. Of course, Jones is also one year younger, and with 170 more points. So there’s also that. And there’s also this: a quarter of Dallas’ even-strength goals this season came from Dallas blueliners this season.
If Dallas’ strategy to funnel their offense, both explicit and implicit (seen below), through their blueline is something they want to improve on...
Wouldn’t it make sense to add another weapon? Especially if you can do so without sacrificing defense?
But this isn’t a long term solution. It’s a one-season fix.
True. But then, who is Dallas after next season anyway? Dallas may only get one season of Jones and Klingberg, but I suspect it’ll be easy to sign at least one of them. After all, Dallas should be an extremely competitive team. That’s an easy sell for bringing players back.
Also, the Stars will lose Radulov and Pavelski for nothing too. Dallas’ chips are all-in next season no matter what. After that it’s gonna be the draft driving their core. If Dallas is looking to draft a sturdy right-handed blueliner like Corson Ceulemans*, as Saad has Dallas doing, that could be another signal that Dallas will be looking to focus on the Heiskanen and Hintz window rather than the Benn and Seguin one, and therefore looking to cut cap long-term by working on blueline depth.
The worst-case scenario, and the reason why Nill isn’t the idiot that I am, is that Dallas loses Jones and Klingberg for nothing. I don’t think that would, or even could, happen. Nill has a strong reputation in the NHL community — specifically among NHL agents, where it matters most (well, second most below the draft) — for good reason: he’s a reasonable man to work with. But the possibility alone might be reason enough to avoid it.
In my defense, I think of Stanley Cup-winning teams like great music records. They don’t all have to be winners. And besides: what’s wrong with being a one-hit wonder? Dexy’s Midnight Runners may not be a part of history, but Come On Eileen sure is.
*Ceulemans isn’t my personal pick but he’s good. Real good.