Northern Michigan defenseman Mitch Jones brings size, strength to center position

MARQUETTE – When Northern Michigan University head hockey coach Walt Kyle was scouring the British Columbia junior hockey league (BCHL) for a forward late in the recruiting season, he stumbled upon a young Mitch Jones.

Kyle liked what he saw, but there was one problem. Jones was a defenseman, and Northern only had room in its recruiting budget for a forward.

Little did Kyle know, but he was in fact watching what was once a forward.

“I watched Jones play and I liked a lot of the things he did offensively,” Kyle said reflecting on the recruiting process. “I thought he was really dynamic and went back afterwards to talk to his coach. I told him we only have money for a forward and I need a forward. This kid looks like a heck of a player. He may be the best player out there, the best available guy. I may have to do something even at defenseman. The coach said, ‘He’s been a forward all his life. We moved him to defense the last year or two.'”

Jones agreed to come to Northern for the 2011-12 season on one condition. Kyle and the ‘Cats had to try the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Delta, British Columbia native at defense before moving him back to forward.

Jones played all of last season at defense, mostly with fellow 2012-12 recruit Jake Baker, and began this season again on the blue line for the first 18 games.

Injuries, suspensions, an over-abundance of defensemen and an urge to get the best available 18 skaters on the ice finally opened the door for Kyle to do what he had wanted with Jones all along.

On Dec. 15 in Game 2 at Lake Superior State, Kyle finally began experimenting with Jones at center.

“When I was younger, I played quite a bit of center so its not completely new to me,” Jones said. “Obviously at this level, it’s faster and there’s a lot more responsibility being a centerman.

“I always thought my best position was as a D-man. I think this team, we could use some more guys in the middle. That’s what Walt talked to me about so I’m happy to do that.”

Jones rated his debut as a collegiate forward “OK” in the 3-1 loss to the Lakers, saying he was often caught flat footed. He was only 5-7 on faceoffs as well.

The holiday break did Jones plenty of good, however. He began skating as a center in practices and worked with NMU strength and conditioning coordinator Dusty Collins – a former NMU and AHL hockey player – on face offs.

Jones won 18 of his 28 draws last weekend in a 6-2 and 2-1 sweep at St. Cloud State and his line helped set up a key second-period goal on Friday for senior defenseman Scott Macaulay. Jones later picked up his fourth assist of the season on Friday’s game-winning goal by Ryan Daugherty.

“He controls the puck well down low,” said NMU freshman forward Ryan Aynsley, who along with freshman froward Darren Nowick played alongside Jones in St. Cloud. “He’s really shifty. He’s very offensive. Whatever line he is on, he’ll help those guys out right away.”

Northern began the year with a sweep of Wisconsin in Green Bay, using senior Matt Thurber, junior Stephan Vigier and junior Erik Higby at center while Nowick and sophomore Ryan Kesti split the series centering the fourth line. Thurber, Vigier and Higby are all listed at 5-9 and with only Thurber coming close to tipping the scale over 200 pounds – he’s listed at 192.

While Kesti, a 6-2, 207-pound converted defenseman, provides a bigger man for the fourth line, Jones has added strength and size to a third line that is being relied upon to occasionally contribute to a struggling offense.

“He makes a lot of room down low for us not necessarily because he’s a big body, but his hands and skills are pretty good,” said Nowick, who is 5-10, 192. “When he gets the puck, D don’t really rush him. They contain him a little more, which gives me more room to work around him.”

Jones, who practiced as a forward Tuesday with Nowick and freshman Cohen Adair, will be back at center at 7:35 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at the Berry Events Center against Miami.

Kyle said Jones could eventually move back to defense, but for now, he’ll keep the former forward up front.

“He gives us an element of size and strength there,” Kyle said. “He gives us an element of good defensive reliability. A center’s responsibility defensively is the same as a defenseman in the D zone. He knows that.

“I think he’s really done a great job. He looks to me to be a quality center.”