On February 22, 2019, when General Manager Brian MacLellan made the decision to trade for then Detroit Red Wing Nick Jensen, MacLellan indicated he was targeting a potential top-four defensive acquisition on par with the trade in the 2017-18 season to acquire Michal Kempny. At the time, Jensen was skating an average of 20:48 of ice time for the cellar dwelling Red Wings, putting up 15 points in 60 games and posted strong possession metrics on a bad team.
Following the trade, however, it was clear that Jensen hadn’t found his footing or a role on the Capitals defensive corps. In 20 games with the Capitals after being acquired and subsequently extended at the NHL’s trade deadline, he only received 17 minutes of ice time, and only posted five points.
Some of the offensive acumen that Jensen showed in Detroit was more a result of his role on that team. The offense didn’t show up much for Jensen, who from February 22, 2019 to the end of the 2019-20 regular season, only put up 13 points in 88 games.
Then, the Todd Reirden led era of the Capitals came to an end after another disappointing first round exit. Peter Laviolette came to town as the team’s new head coach, and the Boston Bruins’ longtime captain Zdeno Chara signed a one-year deal with the Capitals, and something clicked for Jensen.
In 53 games in the 2020-21 regular season, Jensen scored 14 points, outscoring his previous 88 games as a Capital. Something changed in Jensen, whether it be his overall confidence level or more attention paid to the details of the game after spending a bulk of his ice time on a pairing with the talented and tenured defenseman Chara.
Here’s some possession metrics for Jensen over the years as a Capital: (If you’d like to learn more about the advanced analytical terms used in this post, please check out our glossary. Statistics in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.) [Click to enlarge]
As described earlier, Jensen certainly struggled during his first season in DC. Since then, his numbers have slowly increased over time, especially in Corsi For, and most recently, a large spike in performance in Fenwick For percentage. On top of that, Jensen has seen a positive increase in expected goals for percentages year over year.
The large spike in goals for percentage is more a result of a smaller sample size than anything. He has been on the ice for 13 goals for and only three goals against during 5-on-5 play, which is extremely promising.
With his ice time, and with how early on in the season it is, it’s pretty doubtful it remains that high. If he can stabilize that in the high 50s or low 60s, that’s in the elite tier of performance.
Here’s Jensen’s win above replacement (WAR) performance over the past couple seasons (Courtesy of JFreshHockey):
The biggest drop for Jensen is his penalty kill performance, but the entire Capitals’ penalty kill unit has been struggling so far this season. Jensen has seen the most penalty kill time on the Capitals so far this season, and has been on the ice for five goals against. The drop in even strength offense is likely attributed to Jensen and partner Dmitry Orlov’s more defensive role (as noted in the increase in even strength defensive value).
His shooting value has gone up because he’s scored two goals so far this season, and is currently scoring at a .5 goals per 60 minutes rate, which is a career high for him so far.
Whether it’s due to Coach Peter Laviolette and his staff, or a season long of mentoring from an NHL legend in Zdeno Chara, Jensen has ascended into the top four defenseman that Brian MacLellan was expecting when he acquired him in 2019. He’s playing extremely well with Dmitry Orlov and the tandem has become the Capitals’ most consistent and effective at both ends of the ice.
As the season goes on, the question will be whether or not Laviolette chooses to lean more on the Orlov – Jensen pairing as his shutdown pairing. Jensen and Orlov have both played at a high level to warrant being the top pairing.
By Justin Trudel
Good piece, and timely. Jensen is often pilloried by Caps fans, but he’s been a strong stalwart defender on the Blue Line for the past two years. His instincts and “hockey IQ” are strong, and he’s not afraid to lead the rush. We’re lucky to have him.
While I believe some of the early (first season0 negativity regarding Jensen was somewhat justified, there is no question he has become one of the Capitals best defensemen, imho. He had issues in the edge early on, but those issues have mostly been eliminated. His play along the boards, pinching off the attack on the edge has been excellent this season. He’s also using his speed more, and like you said, has solid instincts and hockey IQ.