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5 Reasons This Is the Year to Watch the NHL

Seth Jones

We've made a bunch of allusions to the NHL's relative Gilded Age in the '90s, but there's one big part of that equation that we haven't mentioned: U.S. players.

With no offense meant to folks such as Zach Parise and Tim Thomas, the number of U.S. superstars in the league is nowhere near the level it was 20 years ago. At that time, players including Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte, Brett Hull (we know where he was born, but his Olympics and World Cup of Hockey sweaters read "USA"), Mike Modano, Brian Leetch, Keith Tkachuck, Kevin Stevens, John LeClair, Chris Chelios and Mike Richter made the sport accessible to U.S. fans and drew a direct lineage from the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" Olympic team that got many hockey-loving kids south of Canada hooked in the first place.

Despite the proliferation of rinks, leagues and other infrastructure that made hockey more accessible in the U.S. as the sport expanded south, U.S. players faded from superstardom and gave way to Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk and other great but decidedly foreign players.

Last year in Portland, Ore., fans in the know got a sense that all that was changing. Seth Jones, son of former NBA player Popeye Jones and born at the peak of the last hockey boom in 1994, picked up hockey in Denver while his dad was playing for the Nuggets. Words of advice from future Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Sakic led to his first skating lessons, while a seat at Game 7 of the Colorado Avalanche's 2001 Stanley Cup win gave him a taste for the sport.

Earlier this year, the now highly coveted Jones helped push the U.S. to gold in the World Junior Championships. Later, he guided junior hockey's Portland Winterhawks to the Western Hockey League championship and took the league's Rookie of the Year honors with 14 goals and 42 assists. For his efforts, the Nashville Predators made him the No. 4 overall pick in the first round of this year's draft, the first defenseman taken overall and the first of only three players from the U.S. taken in the first round.

That drew the attention of Jay-Z, who told the New York Post that he'd like to add Jones to the stable of his new Roc Nation sports agency and "be involved in the star's marketing and branding."

Having seen what Jones can do firsthand here in Portland, we're convinced he has the ability to be a scoring defenseman the likes of which the U.S. hasn't seen since Leetch. Unlike the soft-spoken, reserved Ranger, however, Jones has the opportunity to draw star power: greater than players including the Bruins' Zdeno Chara, the Blackhawks' Duncan Keith and Montreal's P.K. Subban -- all of whom rank among the best defenders in the game.

At a time U.S. hockey could use its Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin or even its own version of the NBA's LeBron James, Jones represents its best home in a good, long time.
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