When Zac Jones made his debut under David Quinn in April of 2021, there was quite a bit of buzz around the young defensemen. Fresh out of UMass, Jones came in and was one of the few bright spots at the end of that season, putting up 4 assists in 10 games. Heading into the 2021-2022 season and without looking at some NY Rangers film, I was pretty sure that Jones would stick around. I was a bit surprised he went down to the AHL and stayed there for as long as he did.
Fast forward a year later, Jones is rightfully with the big club. However, to many fans’ disappointment, he has been in and out of the lineup all season and will likely continue to be in the short-term. On paper, he hasn’t been disastrous with a 47.58 CF% (shot volume) and 45.91 xGF% (shot quality). For context, Libor Hajek, his competitor for that last left side defensive spot, is at 43.32% and 46.49%, respectively, per Natural Stat Trick.
Of course, this early in the season, stats can only be used directionally. As always, the nuance of playing defense needs to be analyzed beyond numbers.
So far this season, Jones has been a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde player. On one hand you have a kid who has some skill on the puck, can make decisive breakout passes, and can set up plays in the offensive zone. On the other hand, much like Nils Lundkvist before him, his defensive zone play leaves much to be desired. He often puck watches and can drift out of position. He’s easily muscled off the puck and his slot protection is weak.
NY Rangers film: Off the puck play
On this shift against the Kings, you can see Blake Lizotte, who is listed at only 5’9 170 lbs, get around Jones with ease. There’s no scoring chance here, but if there had been, Blake would have been in a good position to slip one in or make a play.
On this sequence below against the Sharks, Jones was in no mans land while the puck was along the boards. As the puck arrives to Meier, Jones isn’t in position to make any sort of defensive play or than a lazy stick check and Meier is able to get a quality shot off.
Against the Islanders this month, Jones didn’t have good body position against Lee. He made another pretty weak attempt at a stick lift instead of playing the body and not the puck. This a perfect clip you can show young defensemen what not to do.
And finally here against the Kings again, Jones is off in no mans land and not having proper inside body positioning on Kempe (#9).
With the puck:
On the other end of the spectrum, when Jones has the puck, he is decisive with it and makes those coveted tape-to-tape crispy passes. Here against the Sharks, Jones finds his d partner without hesitation.
Against the Kings, Jones makes it look like he’s about to attack down hill, brings his coverage with him, but makes a nice tape-to-tape pass to Breadman on the weakside.
On a nice scissor play, Jones keeps it simple and gives another crispy pass to Breadman on the breakout.
Overall, I like what Jones brings on the offensive side of the puck and he should probably get looks on the second power play unit. With that said, Gallant has to be careful with who he matches that bottom pairing against and in what faze of play. Schneider has proven to be a lock on the right side, but he too could also benefit from having a stable partner on his left.
Another month or so of rotating between Jones and Hajek and we’ll have a clearer picture of who is the better overall option. Right now, neither are really running away with the opportunity.