Johnson: The once-forgettable Blair Jones is making everyone stand up and notice him
Forward has come into training camp with a burr under his saddle
It’s not so much that Blair Jones had been marginalized, exactly, as virtually expunged from memory.
Hmmm. Blair Jones ... Blair Jones ...
Wait a moment. Steady on. A small hint would be nice.
“We offered him to the 29 other teams and he cleared waivers,” reminded Calgary Flames’ coach Bob Hartley on Sunday, as the Calgary Flames finished up training at WinSport.
THAT Blair Jones.
Rangy kid. Acquired from Tampa for defenceman Brendan Mikkelson in January of 2012, isn’t that right? No goals and one point in a pauper’s 15 starts with the big club a year ago. Got relegated to Abbotsford for 21 games. Offered, as Bob The Rebuilder noted, gratis to any team willing to roll the dice in February.
Significantly, no takers.
“It was a tough year, no two ways about it,” understates Jones. “A very hard year for me. But I had time to reflect when the season ended, take a step back, look at it from a different angle and maybe realize some things I could’ve done differently.
“I had a good summer of training. I was prepared for what I had to do when I came here. I’m trying to be a guy that’s getting under the opponents’ skin and just working hard.”
The skin part is working. So far this camp, Blair Jones been a virtual outbreak of psoriasis. He’s been as much fun as foot fungus.
First day, he takes dead aim and rocks captain-in-waiting Mark Giodarno, a clear indication of that realization that standing on proprieties is no longer an option. Not liking the cut of Curtis Glencross’ jib, he shucks the mitts with the cowboy-up winger a day or so later. Then during Saturday’s split-squad games, there he is again, into another tiff, this time against Travis Ewanyk of the Oilers.
Hey, this is someone fighting for his career. And if every once in a while knuckle-dusting is part of the means to that end, well, so be it.
“Jonesy’s playing with desperation,” says assistant coach Martin Gelinas. “He’s not the only guy. There are lot of guys battling for jobs here and you’ve got to find a way to get yourself noticed. A guy like Jonesey, he’s not going to score a lot. So he has to find other ways to contribute and that means being physical, being in people’s faces. That’s how he’s going to make his mark.
“We’ll see where this goes. We’re not even one week into it. But at the same time, he’s trying to do the right thing.”
In a career that has yet to take root, continues to hang precariously in the balance with only 15 goals in 114 regular-season games, this season represented a fish-or-cut-bait moment for from Central Butte, Sask.
The dissatisfaction within this organization was made abundantly clear during his exit meeting in spring time.
“I think the coaching staff made it pretty clear what they needed and wanted,” he says now. “I took it to heart and just tried to work on stuff they wanted from me. I certainly agreed (with what they said). It’s not an easy league to get into or stay in. You’ve got to find a way to do so. I had no problem what they were asking of me.”
Chimes in Hartley: “I think the message was pretty clear on the wall.”
Sometimes, chips in old Lightning teammate Shane O’Brien, finding a niche at this level takes time.
“In Tampa, he was a young kid trying to find his game. Obviously I wasn’t here last year, so I can’t really comment on what happened then.
“But he’s big, can skate, right shot. And he seems to be playing with an edge now. It’s not easy. I’m sure his whole career he’s been viewed as a skilled guy, playing power play, stuff like that. Everyone comes here out of junior or college and you’re regarded as the best player. Even if you go to the American league, you’re probably still playing the role you did before.
“But if you want to play in the NHL a long time, it’s not always that easy. You’ve got find where you fit in, how you can help. If that means adjusting, you do it. Jonesy’s a guy who can play on your third or fourth line and if need be, step up onto the second, as well.
“For him to adapt, to get out of his comfort zone and show the coaching staff that he wants to be here, you’ve got to give him all the credit in the world. He’s involved, hitting, initiating, fighting.
“He’s just got to play with that little bit of an edge. We’ve got a lot of toughness here in guys like Grats (Brian McGrattan) and Jacks (Tim Jackman), so he’s got people who’ll protect him. And he can protect himself. So hopefully he’s realized that. I think he has.
“He’s a good kid. I know there are a lot of guys in there” — a quick nod towards the locker-room — “who are pulling for him.”
Blair Jones fully understands his career has reached a crossroads. The way ahead is apparent. One thing’s certain: He never, ever wants to go through another season like the one just suffered through.
“I’m not necessarily erasing everything from last year from my memory,” he says. “There are still things I need to reflect on, to learn from. But I wanted to come in with a positive attitude.
“I have one year left on my contract. And I told myself I wasn’t going to let last season be my last.”
If nothing else, in a few short days the nearly-forgotten man is making everyone remember he’s still around. Being as maddening as a hunk of pink asbestos insulation on skin on a nightly basis is a difficult, largely thankless job. But on a team conspicuously in need of sandpaper up front, if Blair Jones can rub people the wrong way, he’s got a shot at turning this around.
“It’s night and day from last year,” praises Hartley. “He’s in much better shape. He put in the work in the summer. We had a great meeting last year — it might not have been fun but the truth and he put in the work in the summer.
“From Day 1, he’s been real good. He tested great. The evaluation process keeps going on, the battle is not over yet, but we have to give him credit. He’s turned it around. He showed up.
“Like I said, we had a great meeting last year and it might not have been fun, but the truth was on the table. He had the choice to take it or to leave it.
“And he took it.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
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