Zac Jones’ newfound mindset paying off for Rangers
DALLAS — Zac Jones ran into the same mental obstacles that so many players do when they first transition into the NHL.
The last three seasons, the Rangers’ third-round draft pick in 2019 — an undersized defenseman who had made a name for himself with his puck-moving abilities and offense-mindedness — went up and down between the NHL and AHL and bounced in and out of both lineups on a consistent basis as a result.
Getting scratched repeatedly was not a situation Jones knew how to handle, he said, which seemingly affected both his mindset and play.
Now, six weeks into the season, Jones has been in one place — with the Rangers.
The inconsistent playing time has still been a factor, considering he played in just one of the team’s first 10 games as part of the seventh defenseman’s role.
Amid Adam Fox’s designation to long-term injured reserve, however, Jones has been able to take his new-found mindset for a spin in the last five games entering Monday night’s game against the Stars at American Airlines Center.
“I understand that I’m in the situation I’m in because we got a great team here, and I want to be a part of a winning culture and a winning team,” the 23-year-old told The Post beforehand.
While many players experience the same challenges that come with adjusting to no longer being the best player on the team, not all of them can get past it.
For Jones, the reality of his current role has appeared to settle in.
That’s come with maturing over parts of four NHL seasons, but also with recognizing the opportunity he has in front of him in the top league in hockey.
Even though he earned his roster spot out of training camp, Jones isn’t allowing himself to get fully comfortable.
“The biggest thing for me I think was over the summer, just talking to family, friends and stuff like that, asking questions of other guys that have been through it and just saying, ‘What’s the biggest thing I can take away from what these guys have gone through and try to make it better for myself?’ ” Jones said. “I just talked to guys that have kind of gone through it, whether it was guys that I played on the same team with growing up.
“I’d never been scratched. I’d never really been in that situation. So I didn’t really know how to handle it, per se. So just talking to other guys that had been in that situation was really helpful for me.”
Without Fox, Erik Gustafsson has moved up in the defense corps to skate alongside Ryan Lindgren and quarterback the first power-play unit.
As a result, Jones has filled in for Gustafsson on the left side of the bottom pair next to Braden Schneider in all seven games he’s played this season.
The third pairing has been a weak point for the Rangers for some time, and that still rings true.
Though they have steadily improved with more reps together.
In 69:31 of ice time together before Monday’s contest, Jones and Schneider had been on the ice for five Rangers goals and seven against.
Jones has gotten a chance to work closely with assistant coach and Hall of Fame defenseman Phil Housley, who the UMass product said has helped him with deception at the blue line, plays behind the net and other situational play in the defensive zone.
“I think he’s a smart player that skates well and moves the puck well,” head coach Peter Laviolette said of Jones. “I think he’s done a good job of getting the puck out of our end, adding offensively and he’s played a real steady game for us. Being dealt what we were dealt with a couple of guys being out of the lineup, I think he’s stepped in and done a really good job.”