There are those who say that the fastest way to the NHL is through the OHL. For American players, there is often competing forces pulling them to different areas – from the U.S. development program, to the college route, or making the jump across the border. For Max Jones, the time to make the jump to the OHL was now, and it has paid off so far.
“I felt it was the right time because, obviously, the NHL Draft [is approaching] and I wanted to be in a league where I could prove myself,” Jones said. “Just last year being at the program, it was a great year for me to get really big and get more powerful – just increase my muscle mass. That whole year I just kind of rounded my game and just kind of tightened it up, and when I came here I just exposed everything I had and I think I had a great season.”
On a deep London Knights’ squad, Jones doesn’t get a lot of time on the power play or in key offensive situations, but he still put up some very impressive numbers in his rookie campaign – 25 goals and 24 assists in 60 games. He also showed why he is projected as a top power forward prospect, playing a physical game and picking up 104 penalty minutes. He plays with an edge which has cost him during the playoffs – Jones was hit with a 12-game suspension for a blind-side hit in the first round of the OHL playoffs.
Jones has been out of action since being suspended, but he will be eligible to return to action during the OHL championship series pitting London against the Niagara IceDogs.
It has been a learning curve for Jones this season, and despite his strong season overall, he is critical of his transition.
“I don’t know if I was successful early on. I kind of started off slow – six games I only had one point, so I don’t know if that was successful, but after that I kind of picked it up,” he said. “I don’t know. I think the biggest component – definitely the most prominent figure – was the guys on the team. All the credit goes to them for just being really nice to me the first day I came here and just getting to know the guys and hanging out with them outside the rink and in the rink.
“I think that’s helped me out and just in practice getting to know the speed and the tempo helped me out a lot.”
London Knights’ assistant coach Dylan Hunter said that type of transition is normal for highly-touted players coming into the league.
“It’s a tough league just to jump into. They want to do so well at the beginning and they put so much pressure on themselves,” Hunter explained. “It was more just finding more of what he’s going to be in the future, which is a high-energy, two-way power-forward-type guy. He was getting the chances; they just weren’t going in. It just wasn’t reflecting on the score sheet.”
The biggest change from being in the U.S. National Team Development Program has been the number of games, but Jones said he feels that the pace and tempo of the OHL is better suited to his style of play.
“Probably the number of games is definitely different than what I was used to. It’s also a pro style here and that’s what I was looking forward to,” he said. “It’s just kind of the pro style helped me fit it. It let me recognize what I needed to do, and just keep that mentality throughout the whole year.”
Jones is ranked 14th in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings and placed 13th in ISS Hockey’s latest. He admits to watching the rankings a bit, but uses it as fuel for his game.
“I just use it as motivation. Obviously if you can go higher, then why not try and strive for it,” he said. “I try not to pay attention to it because I’ve got bigger things to do with the guys on the team. I just use it as motivation to try to get myself higher in the rankings, but I don’t want to focus on it too much.”
But he knows that there are scouts watching him and his teammates in every game. And he said it is something you just can’t keep out of your head – though he tries his best and is helped by focusing on the team and its goals.
“Honestly, no. Not really. It’s pretty tough, honestly, with the media around it. It’s kind of something you have to try to do as much as you can because if you’re not, then you’re just going to be selfish,” Jones said. “And that’s not going to help the guys on the team – we’re trying to strive to be that Memorial Cup team and that Ontario winner and I can’t be selfish with my attitudes.“
Hunter added that he has been pleased with how well Jones has handled the pressure. In many ways, this year marks the culmination of a dream, and with that comes tremendous pressure.
“There was a little more pressure on him when he came in. When you’re a highly-rated guy, there’s usually only one way to go – you either stay there or you start sliding,” Hunter said. “It’s tough on any guy who is rated in the top 10 or in the first round at the beginning of the year. I think he’s done a great job shouldering it and he’s been moving up on a lot of guys’ lists.
“Everyone takes it differently. You’re not going to keep their minds off of it because this is what they’ve been working for all of their lives.”
“I talk to Mitch about it. Last year it was his draft year and he went fourth overall. He knows what the year is and what to expect, so I touched base with him at the beginning of the year and asked what to do and what to expect,” Jones said. “He kind of had a slump at the beginning of the year, just like I had, so I knew things would kind of turn around and all of the credit goes to him for helping me stick in there – both him and [Christian] Dvorak, both being veterans and keeping my head in the game.”
And the biggest advice both gave him was to focus on the ice – not on where he falls on the rankings.
“Their biggest advice was probably just to stay focused and not to let any outside things get into my head,” Jones said. “Mitch always used to tell me not to worry about rankings. D-Vo too – D-Vo didn’t really care about rankings, he was a second round pick, they just stayed focused during their years and that’s just what I need to do. I took it to heart.”
Jones also has some family ties to the NHL and OHL. Father Brad played 148 games in the NHL. And his brother Mitch played four seasons with the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL and currently is with the Alaska Aces of the ECHL.
“[My father] has definitely helped a lot. He didn’t play in the OHL, but he played in the NHL, so he knows what to expect in leagues like this. My brother also played four years in the OHL, so I was able to watch him and he told me what to expect,” he said. “Those guys helped me out a lot. Just having them in my life has helped me a lot. I don’t think I’d be at this spot in my life without both of them.”
And Jones said he doesn’t feel having a father who played in the NHL adds any pressure. He looks at it as a positive.
“I don’t look at is as pressure — just the fact that he helps me,” Jones said. “I don’t think that people look at me and expect me to be better or do worse than him. I just use it as a helping figure. He can help me out and help me be the best of my abilities.”
Jones said he wants to work on both his game and his physicality over the summer. Hunter said he expects Jones to diversify his offensive game because that is what is going to set him apart.
“I still think he can keep working on his body – but that’s just like anybody. It’s more give-and-go plays. He’s a high-intensity guy and he can really skate the puck. He’s going to be very good for the NHL,” Hunter said. “At the same time, if there’s one thing, it’s working on accuracy. I’d like to see him shooting through ‘D’ a little bit more.
“In this league he can blow by guys, but at the next level he’s going to have to be a little more tricky with his shot, but he does have such a good release. He’s ahead of the game because his skills are so good, but it’s going to be the intricacies that are going to work.”
Jones’ hometown is Rochester, MI, and that made for some interesting allegiances growing up when it came to favorite teams and players.
“Growing up I was a big Colorado Avalanche fan. I wore 19 for Joe Sakic,” Jones said. “Growing up in the Detroit area, it was pretty harsh – people thought I was wearing it for Steve Yzerman, but it was Sakic. As you grow up you like them still, but it’s hard to have a favourite team when you’re going to be a part of the [NHL].”
And with the draft approaching, Jones insists he has no preference where he goes – he’s just focused on playing in the top league in the sport.
“It would be cool to go to a hometown, like Detroit, or it’d be cool to go to Colorado, my favorite team when I was young,” he said. “But really, it doesn’t matter – any team in the NHL — it’s the NHL.”
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