by A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
At first glance, when examining the AHL’s top five goaltenders in 2010-11 as measured by goals-against average, one name doesn’t seem to fit with the others in the group.
Atop the list is 108-game NHL veteran Curtis Sanford of Hamilton. Then there’s Milwaukee’s Mark Dekanich, a third-year pro who made his NHL debut earlier this year for Nashville; Braden Holtby, a 2010 Calder Cup champion with Hershey who is currently in the NHL with Washington; Jake Allen, a second-round draft pick and top rookie prospect of the St. Louis Blues; and Martin Jones, an undrafted 21-year-old coming off four seasons in the Western Hockey League.
If you picked Jones as the outlier, you’re probably not alone. The rookie goaltender has seemingly flown under the radar for his entire hockey career to date, but the Los Angeles Kings’ prospect is now opening many sets of eyes with his play in the AHL though the first half of 2010-11.
"I don’t exactly know what the expectations were of me, but I always expect a lot out of myself, " Jones said. "I push myself really hard."
Through just 22 appearances for the Atlantic Division-leading Manchester Monarchs, Jones has pushed himself all the way to a remarkable record of 16-3-0 with two shutouts. Entering the weekend, he owns the AHL’s second-best save percentage (.939) and ranks fourth in goals-against average (1.93) and tied for fourth in victories.
As a reward, Jones was named earlier this month to the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Capital BlueCross, to be held in Hershey, Pa., on Jan. 30 and 31.
Not a bad start to his pro career, and this has all come from a guy who entered the season rather anonymously, despite piling up a gaudy 108-28-9 record over a four-year junior career for the Calgary Hitmen (WHL).
"We didn’t know a whole lot about him other than his junior days, and he just continues to pick up where he left off there," Manchester head coach Mark Morris said. "Being from the east, we don’t always hear a whole lot about what’s going on in the WHL, but anyone you asked about him, they’d tell you he’s a winner."
A native of North Vancouver, B.C., Jones took on the position of goaltender full-time for an important summer hockey tournament at the age of 10, and he’s been playing between the pipes ever since.
Jones lists Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur among his favorite goaltenders to watch growing up, but as he progressed toward his own career, he began picking off parts of other netminders’ games and adapting them to his own.
At 6-4, 191 pounds, Jones is a big presence in the net and, not surprisingly, looks to use that size to his advantage.
"Obviously I’m a pretty big guy, and I’ve been pretty fortunate in that I’ve been able to train with some great goalie coaches growing up, and I’ve been able to lay a good foundation for my game technically," he said.
Somewhat inexplicably, given the impressive numbers he put up during his junior career, Jones went undrafted before the Kings invited him to training camp in 2008 and subsequently signed him to a three-year entry-level contract.
"It was disappointing when I didn’t (get drafted), but at the same time it was good motivation to work hard," Jones said. "I had a couple invitations to go to camp, so I knew I was going to get a chance to go to an NHL camp, and it was good motivation to work hard and hopefully prove some people wrong."
Since joining the organization, Jones has spent time working with Kings goaltending coaches Bill Ranford and Kim Dillabaugh, particularly since he began preparing to turn pro.
A key element to come out of those sessions was adapting a superb junior-level game to the rigors of life in the pros.
"The thing they’ve really worked on with me is being more reactive, getting a second layer to my game where I can battle, compete and be a little more acrobatic," Jones explained.
"In junior, I could get away with (going down a lot) because there were only a couple real good shooters on each team. But at this level, everybody can shoot the puck so well, I’ve got to read the release of the shot better, and my save selection has to be a lot more precise as opposed to being a one-dimensional butterfly goalie."
Jones entered his rookie season behind Jonathan Quick, 2009-10 AHL Goaltender of the Year Jonathan Bernier and Jeff Zatkoff on Los Angeles’ goaltending depth chart. He began the year playing second fiddle to the third-year pro Zatkoff in Manchester and didn’t get his first start until the team’s eighth game, on Oct. 24 vs. Charlotte.
Then just 20 years old, Jones stopped 36 of 37 shots in a 2-1 victory and proceeded to win six of his first seven decisions, including his first pro shutout and four other outings in which he allowed just one goal.
Slowly but surely, Morris began shifting more playing time toward the rookie.
"The plan was to get Jonesy in there when we could, and Zatkoff was getting the larger end of the workload early on," Morris said. "Little by little it leveled out, and gradually now Jonesy is taking over as the guy who’s getting the extra game."
It was difficult for Morris to single out one particular game in which Jones cemented his spot as the Monarchs’ go-to backstop. Rather, it’s been a combination of many positive factors.
"It’s his whole body of work that we’ve grown to appreciate," the coach said. "He rarely allows a soft goal, and he absorbs pucks. He plays deep in the net so he doesn’t get bounced around in traffic, but he’s still able to make hard saves look easy because of his positioning. During tense moments in the game, he rarely gets rattled."
While Jones has largely cruised through the season’s first half, he’s prepared for a wave of adversity should it hit. As a 19-year-old, he enjoyed a 45-5-4 regular-season for Calgary in 2008-09 only to lose in the WHL Finals, but bounced back with a 36-11-1 showing last year and helped the Hitmen get over the hump and capture the league title.
Then, there’s the matter of being overlooked in the draft. But you won’t get Jones to set the bar any lower for himself just because he doesn’t enjoy the top draft status of other young prospects.
"I expect a lot from myself, and just because I wasn’t drafted or a highly-touted prospect, I expect the same as I would if I were a top guy," Jones said. "I want to make sure I keep working hard and hopefully turn some eyes, see what happens. My goal is to play in the NHL. The key for me, if I do get a shot or when I do get a shot, is to be ready and take advantage, kind of similar to the way I did here."
While it’s only been half a season, the previously overlooked Jones is forcing people around the league to take notice.
"It’s hard for me to pinpoint one facet of his game that’s a real glaring (weakness) because he hasn’t really allowed himself to be in situations where he gets exposed," Morris said.
"He plays within himself, and if he does give up a goal, his focus is right back to square one. That’s been a strength of his, in that he treats every shot in a professional manner and can refocus right away. I think that’s the sign of a good one."