Just a few months ago Zac Jones became a National Champion with the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Now, Jones prepares for his first full season as a pro. In a matter of months, the Virginia native transitioned from playing with the best collegiate players in the country to the best professional players in the world. This pivot would be difficult for most, especially for the 5’10”, 172lb defenseman. However, if Jones buried his head every time a coach brought up his lack of size, he would have never turned pro. For this reason, Jones is different. While most would say being smaller than most of his competition would be a downside, Jones utilizes what he calls his “hockey sense:” a concept that focuses on mind over matter that he uses to compensate for his height.
This upcoming season, Jones will gain experience, adopt a different style of play, and learn what it takes to be a top-tier NHL defenseman. Lucky for Jones, all three of these checkmarks are within reach. Starting with the experience category, Jones has only played in ten career NHL games. What does this mean for him? Well, it means that he is still a rookie and a lot of the things that go along with being a professional athlete are new for him. A positive for Jones is that he will have all summer to work on the small parts of his game that need to improve. Just a few months ago, he got his feet wet with the New York Rangers. Additionally, by training throughout the offseason, Jones will have a chance to hit the ground running come training camp.
Jones’ style of play will most likely change too with the signing of former Golden Knights head coach, Gerard Gallant. Gallant is known to be a “players coach” with his ability to coach players of all ages. How will this affect Jones? Looking at Gallant’s coaching objectively, I can’t see how it will hurt him. Gallant favors a quick, north-south style of play but focuses on defensive priorities. This is particularly evident in Gallant’s shots on goal against statistics. During his three-year tenure in Vegas, Gallant and his troops were ranked third in the NHL in shots against (30.1). With the Rangers having such a young defensive group and two talented goaltenders, tightening the defense will only help the team as a whole.
As a young defenseman, having a coach that allows his d-men to enter the zone going north to south will give Jones a chance to find comfort with the puck on his stick. Eventually, for every time Jones skates with the puck into the zone, he will slowly begin to develop his east to west dekes and maneuvres. This brings me to my final reason why Jones will have success as a Blueshirt. It has to do with mentors, and he’s got a lot of them. Whether it be two veterans in Jacob Trouba and Brendan Smith showing him the ropes, or Adam Fox, a player who Jones shares similar on-ice characteristics. What about physicality? Ryan Lindgren is there to add a little more edge to Jones’ game.
Hopefully, Jones won’t draw as much blood as Mr. Tough Guy Ryan Lindgren does. But all jokes aside, Lindgren will be a great guy for Jones to mirror when focusing on his defensive attributes.
New York City is as big of a stage as it gets. For this reason, it’s typical of rookies to need some time to adjust to the bright lights and the high standards. For Zac Jones, it’s just another place for him to grow and succeed. At every level, from peewee’s to collegiate, Jones has mastered his role. A role that revolves around hockey IQ, two-way play, and an underdog mentality. For Rangers fans, it will only be a few more months until you get to watch this skillful player grow and develop. He’s got the game, he’s got the mentality, he’s got the right players around him, now, all that’s left is to make it happen.