Mike Jones left Bowling Green University for his first professional season of hockey with high hopes. Unfortunately, rather than getting what he hoped for, he ended up spending the season in the horrid conditions present with the IHL’s worst team, the Detroit Vipers. The entire team struggled from the season’s open until its close. Little leadership and experience was provided for the youngest team in the league. This was detrimental to the development of young prospects, who were supported only by themselves and led by a rookie coach. Other NHL teams provided their IHL affiliates with veterans for their prospects to learn from, but not the Lightning.
At 23, Marek Posmyk was one of the older prospects for the Vipers last season. He was expected to make a significant impact, but instead suffered through numerous injuries and spent almost half of the season watching from the sidelines. His seven goals and 14 assists were second on the team among defensemen, but he failed to show the physical game that would bring him back to the NHL and set his career in motion.
When Posmyk was acquired from Toronto in the Darcy Tucker/Mike Johnson deal, it was obvious he was a project—but worth a shot to an organization with little prospect depth and a hunger for big blueliners. Due to injuries in Tampa, he was able to play 18 games with the Lightning immediately following his acquisition. He contributed a goal and two assists, as well as a plus-1 rating. The Lightning, coincidentally, played close to .500 hockey for those 18 games. Prior to that stint, he received limited time while with the St. John’s Flames of the AHL. Last season, with the addition of Kristian Kudroc and the comings and goings of defensemen off the waiver wire (Craig Millar, Maxim Galanov), Posmyk’s chance for a second shot at the NHL never came. He was called up for one game, but quickly returned to the minor leagues.
After another defensive prospect, Mathieu Biron, was acquired the day before the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Posmyk saw himself slip down the depth chart one more slot. When it became apparent the Lightning were unwilling to offer him more than a standard 10 percent raise as a restricted free agent, he felt unfairly labeled as a “career minor-leaguer” and packed his bags for his home country, the Czech Republic. He signed a contract with Continental Zlin, joining 1999 Lightning draftee Ivan Rachunek.
With Posmyk’s departure, the depth chart has become more shallow. That means the former star from Bowling Green University, Mike Jones, is stepping up the ladder.
That one slot up the depth chart may seem insignificant, until it’s realized that one small step could mean the difference between playing in the AHL and playing in the ECHL. Due to the folding of the IHL and losing the chance at an AHL affiliation with Rochester, the Lightning were forced to share the Springfield Falcons AHL squad with the Phoenix Coyotes. Both teams will provide the club with 10 players. Jones will likely join Kristian Kudroc and Mathieu Biron as the Lightning’s defensive allocations to Springfield. Jones will have to fight former Viper Kyle Kos and newly signed Marek Priechodsky for that honor, however, judging from Jones’ solid and improved play last season (9-17-26 to lead all Viper defensemen). Jones enters training camp as the favorite for that third spot behind Kudroc and Biron.
Considering the number of injuries that seem to plague the Lightning’s blue line each year, Jones could make an appearance in Tampa Bay before the season is said and done. That’s a huge step for a player who went undrafted and was restricted to a horrendous Viper team in his only pro season.
Lightning General Manager Rick Dudley reportedly followed Jones throughout his tenure at Bowling Green University. He was trying to entice him to leave college early for the pros, even when he was the GM of the Vipers. Jones and his family decided that staying the college course was in his best interest, and their patience may pay off this season.
Mike Jones is a smooth-skating, versatile, two-way defenseman who started his hockey playing days as a winger. The 25-year-old moves the puck well and plays a good transition game. He’s quick to join the rush and has a decent shot from the point. He was consistently among NCAA leaders for points among defensemen. In his own zone, his positioning has improved due to his growing understanding of the game. Although he has good size (6’3”, 190), he’s not overly physical, but his physical play picked up as the season progressed last year. He must add muscle to his frame. Jones needs to continue to develop his understanding of the game in all zones, and continue to adjust to playing against men. As mentioned, he has a decent shot, but would lend himself to more power play opportunities if his boomer had more boom behind it. He’s part of an attractive breed of defensemen who have good size, can skate well and play successfully in both ends of the ice.
Chad Schnarr contributed to this article.