“There is no better high than discovery.”
-- E. O. Wilson
When the Washington Capitals traded defenseman Madison Bowey and a fifth-round draft pick to the Detroit Red Wings last February for defenseman Nick Jensen, the hope was that lightning was striking twice, that the Caps would benefit from a little-known, if perhaps underappreciated player that could play an important part in a deep playoff run, just as they did with defenseman Michal Kempny in 2017-2018.
The move certain had more than a passing resemblance to the deal that brought Kempny to the Caps from the Chicago Blackhawks a year earlier, at least in terms of results on the ice. In 20 games with the Caps to close the regular season, Jensen averaged 16 minutes of ice time per game, and while he posted modest offensive numbers (0-5-5, plus-3), the team was 14-5-1 in those 20 games, good enough to hold off the New York Islanders to finish atop the Metropolitan Division for the fourth consecutive season.
But all was not as good as it seemed. Jensen’s acquisition became something of after the fact triage for the blue line rather than addition of a supplemental piece when Kempny went down to injury. Including the game in which Kempny was injured, a 4-3 overtime loss to Tampa Bay on March 20th, the Caps went 5-3-1 in nine games to end the regular season. And, while Jensen did have the reputation of being an earnest defender and an adept puck mover, his lack of offense, compared to that of Kempny, was telling in the postseason. He was on the ice for only four goals against in the series (only Jonas Siegenthaler was on ice for fewer – three – in four games played), but he did not record a point in the seven-game loss to the Carolina Hurricanes and was minus-2 overall.
Odd Jensen Fact…
With all the players from Minnesota to have reached the NHL (271), Nick Jensen is the only one to have done so having been born in Rogers.
Bonus Odd Jensen Fact…
If you like durability, Nick Jensen will be one of three Capitals defensemen to have appeared in at last 160 games over the past two seasons. He has 161 games; John Carlson has 162, and Dmitry Orlov has 164.
Nick Jensen is something of an odd duck in the NHL. On the one hand, he is a late bloomer. While he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2009 Entry Draft by Detroit in 2009, he did not see his first NHL action until he was past his 26th birthday, in December 2016. On the other hand, he hasn’t “bloomed” in the obvious ways. He is the only defenseman in the last decade to log his first three seasons in the NHL between the ages of 26 and 30 and record fewer than 50 points in doing it. What this means, or what fans hope, is that it is in the less obvious aspects of his game where his appeal is evident. He has had good possession numbers with a bad team (50.89 shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 with Detroit in 190 games) and had a rather clean sheet in his own end when on ice (178 total goals against, on ice, third fewest among seven Red Wing defensemen playing at least 100 games over his tenure there). And, his modest offensive numbers with the Caps at the end of last season might be the performance outlier. Jensen was 6-37-43 in 190 games in Detroit, a 3-16-19 pace per 82 games. It is not eye-popping, but it is roughly the per-82 game output of Karl Alzner over his career as a Capital (3-14-17).
Kempny’s absence at the end of the regular season provided a useful, if unwelcome basis for comparison. The late addition of Kempny in 2017-2018 ended up becoming something of the last missing piece the Caps needed for success. His offense, especially in the postseason, while not especially impressive overall, had a timely quality to it. And, the Caps were 31-15-0 in games in which he played to finish the regular season and through the playoffs. On the other hand, Jensen, who essentially replaced Kempny in the “missing piece” role when Kempny went down, did not have as much of an impact. The Caps were 17-9-1 in the games Jensen played – regular season and playoffs – and he did not record a point in the postseason in the opening round loss.
- 100 games as a Capital (20; he need 80)
The Big Question… Will skating for a better team reveal elements of his game we have not yet seen from Nick Jensen?
It is hard to impress with a struggling or rebuilding team, and the Detroit Red Wings were both in Nick Jensen’s time there. One wonders if skating with better talent around him will allow him to free up other aspects of his game. There were times at the end of last season he did not look comfortable in the Caps’ scheme, but part of that might have been a case of being spoiled by how well Michal Kempny fit in a year earlier under similar circumstances. With the 20 regular season and seven playoff games under his belt, not to mention the security and stability a four-year/$10 million contract provides, Jensen might not have the same burdens under which he labored at the end of last season.
On the other hand, Jensen turns 29 on September 21st. And that raises the question of whether with Jensen, what you see is what you get. No bad, mind you, but at age 29, is there an additional upside to be revealed here? In the ideal scenario, he would open the season on the third defensive pairing, perhaps alongside Christian Djoos or Jonas Siegenthaler on the left side. It would result in a lighter burden than he had to carry in Detroit (almost 21 minutes per game last season)
In the end…
Stars have to do what stars do for a team to be successful, and the Capitals are no exception. But the difference between successful teams and also-rans, even ones with superior talents on the roster (Edmonton comes to mind) are the nuts-and-bolts guys who provide steady, dependable play on a night to night basis. Nick Jensen is not likely to wow anyone with electric offensive displays, but if he plays with consistency and discipline – moving the puck, playing the angles, keeping opponents invisible on the ice – his not being noticed on a night to night basis could be an important ingredient to whatever success the Capitals enjoy this season. We are left to discover just what sort of player Jensen will be.
Projection: 76 games, 2-14-16, plus-4
Photo: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images North America