On February 22, 2019, the Capitals acquired Nick Jensen and a 2019 5th round pick (used to draft Arseni Gritsyuk) from the Detroit Red Wings for Madison Bowey and a 2020 2nd round draft selection. The Capitals were looking to solidify the right side of their defensive corps, as well as provide an heir apparent for the right side of the second pairing with Dmitry Orlov.
During his time with the Detroit Red Wings in the 2018-19 season, Jensen showed promise as a smooth skating, puck moving defenseman. He put up 15 points in 60 games with the Red Wings, averaging 20:48 of ice time per game. He operated at a 49.7% ‘Corsi For’ Percentage and a 49.9% ‘Fenwick For’ Percentage on a rebuilding Red Wings team. Those are strong numbers, which seemingly justified the trade for Jensen, and the subsequent extension for four years at a cap hit of $2.5 million.
Fast forward about nine months. Do the Capitals really have a top four defenseman in Nick Jensen? Let’s take a look at his statistics, contributions, and advanced analytics to decide. For our sake, in this post, we’ll only be looking at the 2019-20 season. It’s often difficult to judge the performance of a defenseman who is learning a new system 60+ games into the season, as well as the fact that he was moved all around the lineup with the injury to Michal Kempny at the end of last season.
Looking at Jensen’s four year NHL career, we can see that he’s just not a defenseman who is going to score goals for you, nor rack-up a ton of assists. This isn’t exactly what the Capitals need from Jensen currently, but we’ll examine his pace so far in his NHL career to supplement context, thanks to Hockey-Reference:
One main thing to draw from here is that Jensen performs better with a larger role regarding average time on ice. He was able to get in over 20 minutes a game in Detroit in 60 games prior to being traded in February 2019, and had a strong points per game pace (for him) at .25, He continued that same points per game pace in his 20 games with the Caps last season, but he’s currently at a .117 points per game pace. A lot of that has to do with his recent relegation to the third pairing, but there’s a piece of that production that also necessitated the coaching staff’s decision to move Radko Gudas to the second pairing.
Nick Jensen is a known commodity at this point, offensively. He’s not going to generate a lot of shots from the point, nor is he going to shoot at a high percentage. He averages just over a goal per season. Offensively, Jensen isn’t a player you’re going to rely on to produce offensively, like the Caps currently do with John Carlson.
A positive piece of what Jensen brings to the table is his skating. He has the skating ability to essentially be a one-man breakout. You can see an example of that skating ability against Toronto here:
— Josh Tessler (@JoshTessler_) October 17, 2019
This kind of play may not pay immediate dividends to Jensen’s stat sheet, but it’s important to solidify possession in the offensive zone. You can see Garnet Hathaway picking the puck up behind the goal and move into a position to move the puck to a teammate, or get into an area to get a shot on goal.
Again, these types of plays don’t show up on the box score, but they’re important to have. This skill set, especially from a defenseman with a right handed shot, is definitely valuable.
Here’s a visual we can take a look regarding production rates versus time on ice via Charting Hockey:
Based on production and ice time for all skaters, Jensen is currently in the “overused” quadrant. That’s not necessarily a good place to be, but Radko Gudas, Dmitry Orlov, and Jonas Siegenthaler are also in that camp. John Carlson and Michal Kempny are the only ones in the “good” quadrant for defensemen. The bad news comes when we scale the visual and the data to only account for defensemen:
When we account for just defensemen, Jensen is moved into the “bad” quadrant. He’s joined by Jonas Siegenthaler (who he’s basically right on top of in this metric) and Radko Gudas. Orlov then slots into the fringe area in the “good” quadrant.
Over the course of Jensen’s career, he’s been a pretty strong possession player. This is where the skating and puck-moving skillset mentioned above comes into play. He’s able to get the puck out of the defensive zone, and get possessions going in the offensive zone. We’ll take a look at his overall possession metrics below, also thanks to Hockey-Reference:
There’s something to point out here: through 37 games played with the Caps so far, Jensen has a Corsi For percentage of 46.5%. That’s a large enough sample size to make a judgement that Jensen is probably going to hover around that percentage in the Capitals’ defensive and breakout systems.
A concern would be how far under his teammates’ Corsi For and Fenwick For percentages are, which is outlined by the CF% Relative and FF% Relative statistics. In Detroit, he was typically better than his teammates. That’s to be expected if you’re an above average to good player on a rebuilding team. It’s his relative performance regarding possession compared to his teammates when he’s off the ice that’s a concern.
Let’s take a look at some team stats for the 60 games he played in Detroit and compare them to the stats for the Capitals in his 37 games with the team so far (data provided by Natural Stat Trick):
Overall, you see a tale of two teams in very different positions in the league. In the 37 regular season game span that Jensen has been on the Capitals from February 24, 2019 to today, the Caps have the most standings points in the NHL. The Caps are a strong possession team, and have a +25 goal differential at 5 on 5 play. Now, let’s look at what the Red Wings looked like with and without Jensen in the 2018-19 season (thanks to Natural Stat Trick):
Obviously, after trading Nick Jensen and Gustav Nyquist within 3 days of each other just prior to the last trade deadline, the quality of the Red Wings’ roster diminished significantly. Their possession metrics dropped, they had a -20 goal differential at 5 on 5 play, and they had a losing record to show for it. Essentially, we can posit that Nyquist and Jensen were carrying the Red Wings’ possession metrics in the first 60 games of the Red Wings’ 2018-19 season, and got considerably worse after trading those two players away. Obviously, that’s kind of the point of a rebuild, so no judgement on the Red Wings organization there.
Although Jensen’s possession numbers have diminished a bit, there’s a pretty decent level of evidence that shows that this is likely because he’s no longer in a larger role regarding deployments and ice time. That being said, that doesn’t take him off the hook. Even though he’s getting less ice time, he needs to pick up his possession stats.
Let’s get to the crux of the value of a defenseman: how well does he play defensively to keep the puck out of the Caps’ net? We’ll look at his year so far this season with the Caps, since he should have more familiarity with the Caps’ systems after an off-season with the team. There was certainly an adjustment period for him moving from Detroit to the Capitals, so we’ll consider how Jensen has performed this season, and then compare him to his teammates on the defensive corps.
First off, let’s take a look at Jensen’s key defensive metrics:
There’s some good things and some improvement opportunities based on the data here. Let’s take a look at the good things first. He’s currently on the ice for more scoring chances for than is being given up while he’s on the ice. The Caps have generated 113 scoring ‘chances for’ at 5 on 5 play while Jensen is on the ice, compared to giving up 100 scoring chances.
Now, let’s unpack the improvement opportunities. He’s currently giving up more goals against than what’s expected statistically. That’s not always only on the player, but also the goaltender’s play to an extent. The other piece is, while he’s on the ice, the Caps are giving up more high danger scoring chances and subsequently more high danger goals against. This certainly isn’t just an improvement opportunity for Jensen, but we’ll see how that’s a greater trend among Caps defensemen as a whole.
Now, let’s put the defensive metrics we outlined in the table above and put it into perspective with the rest of the Caps’ regular defensemen at 5 on 5 play:
All in all, there seems to be a systemic issue here. The Caps are still giving up more high danger chances against then they’re generating, outside of Siegenthaler. The Caps are also giving up more high danger goals against percentage-wise, outside of Kempny and Carlson. We don’t know how sustainable those rates for Carlson and Kempny are going to be going forward, so that’s certainly something to keep an eye on.
Nick Jensen is certainly a talented defenseman, and we’ve seen flashes of it in Washington. He’s had a decent history of showing that he’s a solid possession defenseman, and has good puck-moving skills too. The biggest thing the Caps need to figure out this season and going into the off-season is whether or not Jensen is really a top four defenseman in the Caps’ current system, and if the contract he’s on currently makes sense for a bottom pairing defenseman if he isn’t a top four option.
Some things we’d like to see from Jensen moving forward include:
- keeping up the pace on scoring chance for percentage; improving the high danger chances and goals against metrics;
- getting closer to the team average for possession metrics; and
- chipping in a bit more offensively to get in line with his career averages for points per game.
By Justin Trudel