As Blackhawks goalie Alex Stalock made a save to stop play in the third period Tuesday night, defenseman Caleb Jones turned around and shoved Panthers center Aleksander Barkov away from the net.
It was a small, almost meaningless display of resistance. But it caught Hawks coach Luke Richardson’s eye.
“We’ve talked about that, having a presence there,” Richardson said. “I don’t care who it is, [we need a] five-man mentality to get them out of our crease, not let them in. And we have Caleb Jones — probably our smallest defenseman out there — doing it, knowing he has the other four guys out there to back him up. That’s huge.”
Recognition like that is huge for Jones, too. At 25, entering his second year with the Hawks and his fifth in the NHL, the 6-1, 195-pounder realizes the clock is ticking on his long-awaited career breakthrough.
If he doesn’t prove this season that he can be more than a depth option revolving in and out of the lineup, he might never prove it. That’s a harsh, big-picture perspective that many players would avoid, but Jones has embraced it.
“I’m getting to that age where it’s time to really get established,” he said Thursday. “There’s a lot of guys that want to play in the NHL, and you only get so many opportunities. That’s something I’ve learned: When [opportunities] come along, you have to make sure you grab them. Every time you get on the ice, you have to make sure you’re playing your best. Once you show that consistency, they can’t take you out of the lineup.”
Jones did show flashes on offense last season, with 15 points in 51 games. But the flashes were usually just that, and he struggled with turnovers and coverage in his own zone.
“I had good stretches of games, and then I’d fall off, and then have another good stretch, and that just doesn’t work,” he said, chuckling. “I’m just trying to stay consistent and do everything off the ice right and keep myself healthy. I think my talent and my game will take care of itself on the ice.”
Staying healthy has indeed been a challenge. Jones missed six weeks last season with a wrist injury, then the World Championships and some summer training with another wrist injury, then most of camp and this season’s opener with a shoulder issue.
But in between it all, he watched the playoffs closely, hoping to learn from what he saw. His main takeaway was exactly what delighted Richardson on Tuesday.
“[When] you look at the best teams, they make it hard for other forwards to get to the front of the net,” Jones said. “It’s a battle. I know for myself, personally, I wasn’t very good at that last year. All of us want to be better at that and be harder to play against, and that’s something I’ve tried to focus on coming into this year.”
Jones’ first two appearances this season — against the Golden Knights and Sharks — were disappointing. His turnover tendencies continued, and he often was caught out of position. But he looked better against the Red Wings and Panthers, convincing Richardson to halt a sixth-defenseman rotation with Filip Roos to play Jones again Thursday against the Oilers, his former team. He had an assist on Reese Johnson’s goal late in the first period.
Entering Thursday, opponents’ expected-goals rate against Jones at even strength had decreased from 2.62 last season to 2.17 this season — an encouraging trend.
“He’s not the biggest guy, but he has been playing big,” Richardson said. “He has the skating ability to [be an NHL regular]. It’s just [about] calming down with the puck [and] making sure he’s not rushing things and having more confidence. The more he plays, the more confidence he’ll gain.”