DALLAS — Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson recently sat down struggling defenseman Caleb Jones to show him a specific video clip.
In it, Lightning star Mikhail Sergachev — analytically one of top-performing defensemen in the NHL so far this season — casually skated out from behind his net, then accidentally lost the puck right in the slot. Stars forward Radek Faksa jumped on the puck and immediately scored a game-tying goal with less than five minutes left.
Richardson’s message? Over the course of thousands of shifts over 82 games, mistakes are inevitable. Even the best players make them. And they’re not worth beating oneself up about.
“That can happen,” Caleb Jones said. “It’s just bad ‘puck luck.’ It’s a long season, and that happens to everyone. [You have to] keep your confidence and keep pushing and getting better. It was a good conversation.”
Jones knows he has struggled lately. That’s no secret. His nightmarish stretch started last week against the Hurricanes, when he caused a goal against with a disastrous pass from behind his own net in similar fashion to Sergachev.
It continued against the Blues, when all five goals the Hawks allowed came with him on the ice. And after being healthy-scratched against the Bruins in order to reset mentally, it culminated against the Penguins, when Sidney Crosby beat him to score the game-winning goal and spoil the Hawks’ comeback.
The Hawks’ scoring-chance ratio during Jones’ five-on-five ice time this season had fallen to 37.8% — which ranked 203rd among 211 defensemen league-wide — entering Wednesday’s game against the Stars. Over the last six games, his ratio was 31.4%. (To be fair, every Hawks defenseman currently sits in the bottom half of the league.)
After morning skate Wednesday, Jones could only chuckle about it the minus-five night; he’d never experienced anything like that before in his hockey-playing life. But as he has throughout his Chicago tenure, he still took accountability for his struggles.
“The last three or four [games], there have been a couple mishaps,” Jones said. “I have to find a way personally, when those games happen, to bounce back better and make sure they don’t last. That’s just a learning process for me. Overall this year, I started out really good, but the last three or four games have been a little down. So I just have to stay confident and work my way through it. It’s just a little slump. I’ll be alright.”
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Jones has become a lightning rod for criticism from a portion of the fan base that desperately wants him benched.
On one hand, the Hawks indeed do suddenly have a defensive personnel conundrum. Ian Mitchell and Filip Roos were both healthy scratches Wednesday with Seth Jones returning from injury. Two young players missing out on development opportunities while two veteran journeymen (Jarred Tinordi and Jack Johnson) and one slumping player (Caleb Jones) remain in the lineup doesn’t make the most sense.
On the other hand, Jones enjoyed a very good stretch of hockey before this recent downturn. From Oct. 25 through Nov. 3, he tallied six assists in six games and was relatively clean with the puck. He is an excellent skater who has often shown flashes of top-four potential, only to be held back by his inconsistency.
Richardson, for the record, has stood firmly behind Jones at every turn, continually offering votes of confidence.
“He has done really well,” Richardson said Wednesday. “There have been a couple games where he’s been on the ice for goals against, but he’s not the only one. He seems like he’s matured and grown. He has taken a big leap in this opportunity and ran with it. Getting back to a normal role, which is a little bit less [demanding], he’s going to be confident in that — and he should be.”
Richardson’s support has allowed Jones to keep spirits high in spite of the adversity.
That’s reflected in Jones’ optimism moving forward, as he — and the Hawks’ coaching staff — believes his brother’s return will have a positive ripple effect on the rest of the defensive corps. The two of them enjoyed a family dinner Tuesday in Dallas and expected a “decent-sized” group of family, friends and advisors at American Airlines Center for the game.
“We’re all excited to have [Seth] back,” Caleb Jones said. “When you lose a guy like that, you all have to take on a little more. Over the last couple weeks, we did a good job of it, but it can start to catch up to you a little bit. Guys are doing things that they’ve never done. Getting him back will take that load off and let us all get back to playing…how we were at the start of the year.”