Coming into the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, hockey journalists, prognosticators and bloggers were all asking the question: would Minnesota Wild general manager Paul Fenton drop his “best player available” strategy and go off the board to address a pressing need in net, making the Wild the first team in nine years to take a goalie in the top 12?
As it turned out, Fenton kept to his promise of taking the best player on his board and grabbed forward Matthew Boldy with the 12th overall pick. The top goaltender prospect in the draft, Spencer Knight, went one selection later to the Florida Panthers. The Wild would address the position soon enough, however, trading up into the second round to take Peterborough Petes’ netminder Hunter Jones at 59th overall.
Having gone undrafted in 2018 after playing his first season with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League, Jones caught the eye of scouts in 2018-19 despite putting up pedestrian (though improved) numbers while backstopping the Petes as their starting goaltender. Jones continued to improve with the Petes in 2019-20, using his raw athletic ability and size to lead the Petes to a second-place finish in the OHL’s East Division, finishing behind Marco Rossi’s Ottawa 67s.
But while Jones has the size, smarts and athleticism to take his game to the next level, his game is still raw and he’s got a lot to work on - which is why Jones comes in at the No. 20 spot on this year’s ranking.
Take a glance at the numbers after the 2018-19 Petes season and you might wonder not only why the Wild would selected Jones in the second round, but why they would have traded third and fourth round picks to get him. But the numbers don’t tell you the complete story: like how the 18-19 Petes were not a great squad, allowing Jones to be shelled with over 31 shots per game. Despite somewhat poor numbers, Jones’ raw ability still managed to catch the eye of scouts, and showed enough to Fenton to make him a second-round pick for the Wild.
Fresh off the draft, Jones started the season very strong in 2019-20, backstopping the Petes to an 8-1-0 record on the strength of a 2.34 GAA and .923 save percentage. He was named the OHL’s player of the week for October 14-20, and the goalie of the month for all of October. Jones’ numbers dipped a little bit over the second half of the season, but he still managed to finish the year fourth in the OHL in goals against average, fifth in save percentage, fourth in wins and tied for second in shutouts among starting goaltenders.
Jones also was picked to try out for Canada’s U20 World Juniors team but was cut during selection camp.
Roll the Tape
Teams in today’s NHL are looking for goalies that are big and athletic - see Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck. Jones may not yet be in their class in terms of skill, but at 6-foot-4 and 194 pounds, he’s definitely got one thing you can’t coach - pure size. His height and frame allow him not only to swallow up shots on net, but his height gives him the opportunity to maintain vision on the puck, preventing him from easily being beaten by screens.
In terms of athleticism, Jones uses his quick reaction, strong blocker and lightning quick glove hand to snag high danger shots, while his quick, efficient movement allows him to get back and forth from the butterfly to make the save, redirect the rebound and prepare for the next scoring opportunity.
Sensational saves from @mnwild prospect Hunter Jones (@ShutoutsJones) guided @PetesOHLhockey to a 37-win season. Take in his finest work in this @AshleyHomeStore #OHL Highlight Reel pic.twitter.com/KrRnhR011C— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) August 2, 2020
While scouts seem to all align on Jones’ strengths, many seem to disagree on what his weaknesses are. Some see a goalie who needs to work on his skating and lateral movement. Some think Jones has an issue focusing on the game and seeing the puck. Many scouts do agree that his stickhandling could use some work, as seen in the video below.
To say Hunter Jones really struggled Friday night would be an understatement (gave up 7 goals on 47 shots for an .851 save %) but this was by far his worst play of the night. Badly misplays a dump in and hands Ian Blacker his first career #OHL playoff goal pic.twitter.com/KukLPiRFN8— Generals Live (@GeneralsUpdates) March 24, 2019
Jones may have some definite flaws in his game, but the Wild prospect has been able to use his raw skill and athleticism to make up for those difficiencies up to this point in his career. And while stronger shooters in the pros can more readily take advantage of those weaknesses than players in the OHL, technique, skating and seeing the puck are skills that a good goalie coach can help a netminder add to their toolkit, allowing Jones to further progress his game.
And even though scouts are mixed on Jones’ upside (The Athletic’s Corey Pronman being one of the most prominent naysayers), one person who was impressed to see Jones play in person was current Wild goaltender Alex Stalock. Upon seeing him at the Wild’s developmental camp in 2019, Stalock was quoted in an interview with Michael Russo as saying...
In March, the Wild signed Jones to a three-year entry level contract, making it very likely that the now 20-year-old goaltender will make the jump from the juniors to the pros, joining the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa for the 2020-21 season. Should the Wild assign Jones to Iowa instead of a league like the ECHL, newly hired rookie goalie coach Richard Bachman would have the task of coaching up Jones and helping him fix some of the weaker aspects of his game.
Bill Guerin’s game plan this offseason has clearly been to address what has been a major concern over the past couple of seasons, trading away veteran netminder Devan Dubnyk and signing free agent Cam Talbot to a three-year deal to share time with Stalock, who still has two years on his current deal. Beyond that, most believe that the heir apparent to the #1 spot is Kaapo Kähkönen, who has been stellar in the AHL and has looked promising in limited action with the Wild. Since the Wild opted not to qualify last year’s backup, former Minnesota Golden Gopher Mat Robson, Jones will have the backup spot all to himself in Iowa, giving him a perfect opportunity to learn from Kähkönen and hone his skills in order to possibly move into a backup role in 2-3 years.
With seventh-round pick Filip Lindberg and undrafted free agent Derek Baribeau representing the only other real goalie prospects in the system, the Wild must really like what they see in Jones and Kähkönen if they passed on Knight in 2019 and the highly acclaimed Yaroslav Askarov in the 2020 draft. Whether or not the Wild scouts were right on Jones remains to be seen. But looking at the timeline, Jones has a golden opportunity to learn and develop in the AHL, with a reasonable goal of seeing his first NHL time in a few years.