As we continue our profiles of pending restricted and unrestricted free agents for the Calgary Flames, our focus turns to Blair Jones. Spending just under half the season with Calgary, Jones certainly showed the Flames some compelling traits. Will they be compelling enough for a longer term stay with the team, though?
Blair Jones, 25, 6’2, 216 pounds, acquired via trade from Tampa Bay Lightning on January 6th in exchange for Brendan Mikkelson
2011/2012 totals: 43 GP, 3 G, 5 A, 8 P, 18 PIM, -1
2011/2012 cap hit: $525,000
Jones can fill a very specific role on a team, and did so at times during his limited time with the Flames. That role, simply put, is to be a checking center deployed much more often defensively. Brent Sutter used Jones in this role almost exclusively leading up to his Feburary 9th ankle injury that knocked him out for more than a month, and the job was being done fairly effectively. Jones isn’t going to get the better of his opponents offensively very often, but he can do a decent job limiting damage when put out for defensive zone faceoffs. Among centers last year, Jones had the lowest offensive zone start on the team at 44.1%, meaning he was deployed fairly often in his own end. He doesn’t get crushed by the opposition, which means that a coach can continue using him in this role, which opens things up in a very important way.
Using Jones in this manner allows a coach to give his best players much more time in the offensize zone. From January 7th (Jones’s first game) to the night of his injury on Febuary 9th, the Flames had a true checking center for the first time since Daymond Langkow was a healthy member of the team. It positively affected the duo of Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay specifically, as Sutter was visibly able to give them much more time inside the offensive blueline. During that 12 game span, Iginla had 12 points and Tanguay (only playing in six of those games thanks to an injury of his own) had six points. It really wasn’t a coincidence.
There may not be a stat for it, but Jones brings an element to the game that hasn’t been the most plentiful for the Flames in recent years. He gets under opposing players skin thanks to the brand of hockey he plays and his seemingly permanent smile. We all remember Jones giving Joe Thornton an earful in an early February Calgary win in San Jose. It was an image that underlined this strength for him, and it’s something every team can use.
Finally, Jones isn’t going to be due a significant raise. He’s never played more than 26 games in an NHL season and he’s yet to hit double digits in points. While there might be some room to improve, it’s not like he has a lot of bargaining power in trying to negotiate a significant bump in pay. You can probably get Jones for around $750,000 per season which is a very helpful number for a guy who I believe can be a full time NHL pivot.
There’s just not much there offensively for Jones. While he had one banner WHL season when playing with Moose Jaw in 2005/2006 (85 points in 72 games) and has put up decent totals in prior AHL campaigns, Jones hasn’t shown a whole lot of ability at the highest level. That’s okay, because he’s not a guy that’s going to be counted on for that, but it’s not like there should be an expectation of huge improvement in that regard.
On top of that, his ceiling isn’t the highest. Jones turns 26 in September and has yet to play a full NHL season since turning pro in 2006. While there is still room for slight development at that age, after six full professional years, Jones is starting to enter “is what he is” territory at the NHL level. That’s okay, because what he is can still fill a role, but I don’t think you’re going to see a ton of elevation from him over the next couple seasons.
I’d sign him. Let’s think realistically here. Newly signed Roman Cervenka joins Matt Stajan as the only two natural NHL centers under contract for next season. Assuming Olli Jokinen is gone and Mikael Backlund is back, that leaves a spot for Jones to come back on an affordable one or two year contract. The Flames need guys who can play and keep them somewhat competitive for a couple years, and we know Jones can play defensive minutes in a depth role, so why not? The team can qualify him at $525,000 or sign him to a two year, $1.3 million deal easily. No contract Jones signs will be cap prohibitive going forward, we know he can do a decent job, so there’s really no reason to not bring a controllable RFA asset back for next season.