Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Washington Capitals: 2018-2019 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Nick Jensen

Nick Jensen

"With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.”
-- Eleanor Roosevelt

One day, you are toiling in relative obscurity for a renowned franchise that has fallen on hard times, the next you are thrust into a stretch run to the postseason with the defending Stanley Cup champions.  Life in the NHL at the trading deadline, where there are buyers and sellers, even a seller with 11 Stanley Cups in franchise history and a buyer who has but one.  However, the Detroit Red Wings were on their way to a third straight season without a playoff berth, and that made third-year defenseman Nick Jensen an asset that might be attractive to teams looking to bolster their blue line for the postseason. 

For the Washington Capitals, a player like Jensen, a smooth skating defenseman who appeals more to the fan who pays attention to detail than the casual fan who might look more at top-end numbers, might be a chance to capture lightning in a bottle a second time after securing Michal Kempny, an important part of the Caps’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, at the trading deadline in February 2018.  The Caps gave up young defenseman Madison Bowey and a 2019 fifth round draft pick to secure Jensen, but it seemed a light price to pay to add another layer of strength on the blue line going into the postseason.

Jensen dressed for 20 games to close out the regular season with the Caps, and his points production (five) was equivalent to that of the pace he set in Detroit (15 points in 60 games).  He managed to do it while averaging less ice time (17:00) than he did in Detroit (20:48).

Fearless’ Take… Jensen getting more ice time was associated with good things for the Caps in his abbreviated stay.  They were 11-2-0 in the 13 games in which he skated at least 16 minutes, 3-3-1 when he skated less than 16 minutes.  And, it wasn’t a case of having to contribute scoring for the Caps to be successful with Jensen in the lineup.  Washington was 4-1-0 in the five games in which he had points, 10-4-1 in the games in which he did not. 

Cheerless’ Take… There is getting ice time, and there is managing it.  In the last 20 games of the season, Jensen was the only Capital defenseman who dressed for more than one game with an on-ice shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 under 50 percent (46.69 percent).  The odd part of that was that he was second best in that group in tied-game situations (54.89 percent, trailing only Michal Kempny (56.00 percent in 12 games).

Odd Jensen Fact… Nick Jensen played his college hockey at St. Cloud State.  Nick Jensen played college football at…yup, St. Cloud State (before he transferred to Saint John’s College).  We don’t think either is related to… Nick Jensen of the University of South Dakota, although Nick Jensen (the second one) also played at South Dakota State.

Game to Remember… March 24th vs. Philadelphia

Upon arriving in Washington, Nick Jensen was dipped into the history of rivalries.  Of his first eight games with the Caps, six were against former Patrick and current Metropolitan Division clubs – the New York Rangers (twice), the New York Islanders, the New Jersey Devils, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Philadelphia Flyers.  That was the run-up to a matinee rematch against the Flyers on March 24th a game that was important to the Caps because they just had a seven-game winning streak snapped and wanted to avoid consecutive losses for the first time in two months.

Washington drew first blood early in the first period on a broken play that was quickly repaired.  From the right wing corner, Nicklas Backstrom sent a no-look backhand pass in front to Alex Ovechkin.  He tried to send the puck across to Tom Wilson alone to the right of goalie Brian Elliott, but a sliding Claude Giroux interrupted that effort.  The puck slid out to Jensen at the top of the zone.  Backing off to try for a better passing angle, Jensen flipped the puck at the net, and Wilson got his stick on it to redirect it down and past Elliott’s left pad to make it 1-0, 3:52 into the game.

The Caps doubled their lead mid-way through the second period on a Travis Boyd goal, but the Flyers got back within one on a power play before the second intermission.  Jakub Vrana put the game away mid-way through the third period, the Caps getting back on a winning track, 3-1.  It was a typically “Jensen” game, if only more of it.  In addition to the assist on the Wilson goal, he had three shot attempts (one on goal, two others blocked), two hits, and five blocked shots (his high with the Caps) in 20:45 in ice time (his high with the Caps to that point).
Game to Forget…  March 12th at Pittsburgh

Nick Jensen’s introduction to the Capitals-Penguins rivalry was not a happy one.  Things started well enough for the Caps, who got a pair of goals from Jakub Vrana in the game’s first 31 minutes to take a 2-0 lead.  However, two minutes after the second Vrana goal, the Caps turned the puck over inside their own blue line, and the Penguins capitalized with Jared McCann feeding Jake Guentzel, who took advantage of what looked like an early exit from the defensive zone by Jensen, for the Pens’ goal.  It was the first of four straight Penguin goals, scored over a 19-minute span over the second and third periods, as the Pens won going away, 5-3.  In 14:09 of ice time, Jensen did not have a point, did not have a shot attempt, did not have a hit, takeaway, or blocked shot.  He did have a giveaway and was a minus-1 for the evening.

Postseason…  Nick Jensen was the only one of five Capital defensemen who played in all seven games of the opening round loss to Carolina and did not record a point.  That was not too surprising, given that his had five points (all assists) in 20 regular season games with the Caps.  The odd thing, though, was his being the only Capital skater not to record a shot on goal in the Game 7 double overtime loss that ended the Caps’ season, despite more than 24 minutes of ice time (he had three shot attempts).  His first career postseason appearance might be summed up, as it might for a lot of Caps, as being not bad, but just not quite good enough.

Looking ahead… The first order of business upon his acquisition by the Caps was to get Nick Jensen signed to a new contract, a deal that was consummated on the day of the trade.  Jensen inked a four-year/$10 million deal that will keep him with the team through the 2022-2023 season.  Although he is a different sort of defenseman than Matt Niskanen (Jensen has six goals in his three-year career; Niskanen had eight goals this season), other than the fact that both are right-handed shots, Jensen comes at a much lower cap hit ($2.5 million) than does Niskanen ($5.75 million).  He could make Niskanen expendable to give the Caps some signing flexibility and/or the opportunity for young defensemen to assume bigger roles.

In the end…

Nick Jensen was traded for Madison Bowey, but the player he essentially replaced was Christian Djoos, who was out of the lineup upon Jensen’s arrival and did not return until Michal Kempny was lost for the remainder of the season to injury on March 20th.  Whatever the underlying reason, the Caps were objectively more successful after Jensen’s arrival (9-2-1 in his first 12 games) than in the period immediately before his arrival when Djoos was in the lineup (4-3-1 in eight games after he missed 24 games).  After Djoos returned to the lineup, and both he and Jensen were in the lineup, the Caps finished 5-3-0, but that included a meaningless loss, in terms of impact on standings, in the season finale).  This is not to diminish Djoos, who remains a promising prospect, but to suggest Jensen was an upgrade.  Perhaps not of the magnitude of the upgrade Kempny provided at a similar point in 2017-2018, but an upgrade nevertheless.  For Jensen, is did not seem so much a new game for him as it was a new setting in which it could flourish.

Grade: B

Photo: Nick Wass/Associated Press