Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
When defenseman Michal Kempny went down with a torn hamstring that ended his season in mid-March, a door opened for Nick Jensen to jump into the Washington Capitals‘ top-four defensive group and possibly get some time with John Carlson, one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL. Unfortunately for Jensen and the Capitals, he failed to seize that opportunity.
While Jensen did post five assists and a +3 rating in 20 regular-season games with the Capitals after they acquired him from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for defenseman Madison Bowey and a 2020 second-round pick on February 22, he had more giveaways (nine) than takeaways (six) in the regular season. He averaged about the same numbers in terms of blocked shots and hits in Washington and Detroit. Jensen saw his ice-time decrease significantly with the Capitals, averaging 17:00 per game and 1:27 on the penalty kill after playing an average 20:48 worth of ice-time per night, including 2:46 on the penalty kill, with the Red Wings.
It is important to note that Jensen was playing on the third-pair with Brooks Orpik on the Capitals while he played on the second pair with the Red Wings, where he was trusted to be a shutdown defenseman on a blueline. Though Jensen had a bigger role on the Red Wings, defense has been one of the team’s Achilles heels for a long time.
Despite not getting as much ice-time with the Capitals as he did with the Red Wings, Jensen managed to equal the .25 points-per-game average that he posted in Detroit with the Capitals. Though, he did not score a goal with the Capitals after posting two in 60 games with the Red Wings this season.
With Orpik almost certainly not coming back as the Capitals are expected to run into salary cap constraints and defenseman Matt Niskanen possibly on the move to accommodate more cap space, Jensen could bump up in the lineup and play on second-pairing, where he played in the Red Wings’ lineup. Even if Niskanen stays put, it is a possibility that Jensen, 28, could move up the depth chart as Niskanen will turn 33 on December 6 and declined in his play this season.
If Jensen does, in fact, get a promotion early or in the middle of the 2019-20 season, he will have to be a lot better than he was this past year. Jensen struggled in the First Round series against the Carolina Hurricanes as he only had only three takeaways, while also recording six giveaways. He failed to show the quick footspeed that his scouting report showed when the Capitals acquired him prior to the NHL Trade Deadline as he frequently got beat along the walls and up the middle. In addition, he needed to be more physical and fast than he was during the First Round. Though, he played a vital role in the penalty kill, which is currently third in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs with an efficiency of 88%. Jensen averaged 2:18 worth of shorthanded ice-time per game in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Capitals showed how highly they thought of Jensen when they signed him to a four-year contract extension worth $10 million ($2.5 million AAV), the same exact contract that they gave to Kempny last summer, almost immediately after they acquired him. If Jensen’s salary is going to be as much as one of the Capitals’ top-pairing defensemen, he will have to play like the way that he did with the Red Wings this season.
If Orpik and Niskanen walk, a leadership role could be in store for Jensen as defensemen Christian Djoos, Jonas Seigenthaler, and even Tyler Lewington will all be competing for playing time when training camp arrives in September. Seigenthaler was also among relatively quiet this season as he just tallied four points (all assists), only three takeaways, and 20 giveaways but was trusted heavily for a rookie on the penalty kill as he earned an average of 1:03 worth of penalty-killing ice-time per game. Jensen will be expected to help him and the other young blueliners improve and mentor them in his second season with the Capitals.
After Jensen’s expectations were fairly high entering his tenure as a Capital, especially after signing a four-year deal, he failed to live up to those expectations during the postseason as he recorded no points and a -2 rating despite playing an average of 18:43 worth of ice-time while playing in all seven games. With a bigger role, potentially with leadership, and the defensive prowess that he demonstrated in Detroit, Jensen must play like the defenseman that he was with the Red Wings to improve a Capitals’ defense that gave up an average of 3.02 goals-against per game during the regular season and 3.00 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
By Harrison Brown