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Jones cramming during valuable time with taxi squad

(Minneapolis, MN) -- Hunter Jones is a confident guy.

You have to be when you're a goalie and your handle on Twitter is @ShutoutsJones, or you're an accomplished musician unafraid of singing in front of the world.

Or when you're a professional hockey player.


Jones, the Wild's second-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, was one of the top netminders available that year and finished an outstanding junior hockey career with Peterborough of the OHL the following winter before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

He signed his professional contract with the Wild in 2020 then turned pro full time ahead of this season, where he's seen a bulk of the action between the posts for the Iowa Wild as a 20-year-old rookie.

And as confident as he is, nothing could have prepared him for the start he'd have to his professional career.

In his first AHL game, Jones had backstopped Iowa to a 3-2 lead after 40 minutes and was in line for his first pro win ... until the Texas Stars buried six goals (including one late empty-net goal) in the third period - including four in a span of just 3 1/2 minutes.

Jones had to sit on that for 15 days before he saw the crease again, this time against the Chicago Wolves, who scored four times in the first period, then five more times in the second before Jones was pulled after allowing nine goals in two periods of play.

For the first time in his hockey playing career, Jones admitted he doubted himself just a little bit. "I don't know if there was really much avoiding it," Jones said. "I was definitely frustrated, but it's just one of those things where you have to take it and learn from it. A lot of those goals that I gave up were just mental mistakes, understanding that the play is a lot different in pro hockey and guys are able to make plays with less time and less space.

"And it's still a factor and something that I'm learning every single day when I'm on the ice with these guys. It's a challenge and I'm always learning about how guys shoot and different situations. That's the biggest thing, is just getting back in the net and doing my thing. It was a mental obstacle, but it's not the first time I had to go through something like that and it won't be the last, unfortunately. That's the way the sport is."

To his credit, Jones has bounced back from a rough beginning and now finds himself on the taxi squad with the NHL club in Minnesota.

Jones' rookie season has certainly had its share of ups and downs, but that's to be expected in the first year as a pro, a guy who won't turn 21 years old until the start of next season's training camp in September.

Minnesota coach Dean Evason saw it several times before during his six-year stint as head coach of the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals.

Perhaps no position in the sport is more demanding and more challenging than that of being a young goaltender learning how to navigate the professional waters for the first time.

"It's normal for a lot of people to have ups and downs, struggle early and then find their way into pro hockey," Evason said. "Everybody doesn't just have success immediately, and that's exactly what we've been told [by the Iowa coaching staff]. He struggled early but really has found his game and started to mature, not only as a hockey player and a goaltender but as a person.

"They really like what they've seen as of late and it's a good opportunity for [Wild goaltending coach] Freddy [Chabot] to get a first-hand look at him here and get some work in."

Jones slowly started to feel more comfortable as the season went along, highlighted by a three-game stretch earlier this month against the same Texas Stars that spoiled his debut.

On March 31, Jones had his finest performance of the season to that point when he made 35 saves in a 2-1 victory. Two nights later, he posted his first pro shutout when he made 37 saves in a 4-0 win.

The following evening, Jones got the start once again and made 21 stops in a 5-2 victory. For his efforts, Jones was awarded the CCM/AHL Player of the Week. "I knew I was good enough to play at that level and have success at that level," Jones said. "I'm pretty fortunate for the opportunity I've had as a 20-year-old playing at that level, not a lot of guys have that opportunity. I just kept pushing and kept pushing myself and had that great week in Texas and that felt awesome to get a couple wins under my belt and get my first pro shutout."

With taxi squad goaltender Andrew Hammond sustaining an upper-body injury recently, that opened a spot with the big club for Jones to gain even more crucial experience. Barring injuries to the guys ahead of him, Jones won't make his first NHL appearance this time around, but being around a playoff-bound team and being able to practice against some of the best shooters in the world is invaluable experience that Jones says he's eager to soak up, however long it lasts.

Even though it's just practice, Evason said it's still important work as Jones looks to hone his skills even further.

"Having the ability to watch a game live and see how guys conduct themselves. To have a first-hand look at how Cam Talbot prepares and how he goes about his business," Evason said. "I think it's a very valuable tool to have guys see what happens here."

Jones echoed that sentiment, saying that he found himself on Wednesday night watching the game and picking up on things both Talbot and Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington were doing.

In morning skate on Thursday, Jones was taking note of things Kaapo Kahkonen was doing at the other end, a guy who, like himself, is a young goaltender, and one that has had tremendous success at the level where Jones is currently at.

Kahkonen was an AHL All-Star two seasons ago, and last year, was named the AHL's Goaltender of the Year.

It's a path Jones hopes to find himself on in the future as he continues to make a push to one day find himself in Minnesota for good.

"I just want to learn as much as possible, I think that's the biggest thing," Jones said. "I've been on the ice with some really good shooters ... and just being around these guys is a lot of fun. I love being around this group of guys and I love being up here.

"Hopefully I'm up here full-time in the near future, but you just have to take it one day at a time, and when that day comes, I'll be ready for it. I just have to keep learning, keep honing my game and the rest will take care of itself."


By Dan Myers

www.wild.com