From Questionable Acquisition To The Capitals Best Shutdown Defenseman: Nick Jensen Has Come A Long Way

You would probably be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks anybody but John Carlson is the Washington Capitals’ best offensive defenseman this season. Carlson is once again having a career year in the points category and remains a driving force on the Capitals power play. But what about the Capitals best shutdown (defensive) defenseman this season?

The “eye-test” might suggest a few Capitals defensemen as being the best on the back-end, but in reality, the debate really centers on Nick Jensen and Dmitry Orlov. Here’s a look at why Nick Jensen takes home this year’s honors at the Capitals best shutdown defenseman.

Note: If  you have any questions or would like to learn more about any of the statistics or terms used in this post, you can always reference our NHL Analytics Glossary. [Data courtesy of Natural Stat TrickMoneyPuckEvolving HockeyNHL.com and NoVa Caps’ Analytics Model]

The Basics

His initial time with the Capitals was met with some resistance from hockey’s “street” analysts, including your’s truly. His positioning was questionable, often getting beat on the outside, as he struggled to acclimate to the Capitals system. Jensen, 31, has made huge strides in his overall game since his initial arrival in the Nation’s Capital, and is now the Capitals best defensive defenseman for the 2021-22 season.

Here’s why.

Goals Against Per 60 Minutes

The first stat to consider when evaluating defense is the basic goals against stat. To normalize the stat for the variance in ice time between players, we can simply determine each players goals against per 60.

As the “eye-test” would suggest, Nick Jensen and Dmitry Orlov have posted the best goals against per 60 numbers this season, with Nick Jensen having the best overall goals against ratio among all Capitals defensemen.

Expected Goals Against

Expected Goals Against measures the oppositions ability to generate scoring opportunities when a specific player is on the ice. (The metric includes other outside variables, but does provide some context when assessing defensive level’s of play).

Once again we can normalize the data to generate a ratio of expected goals against to a player’s time on the ice.

Matt Irwin and Trevor van Riemsdyk take home top honors, with Nick Jensen third, just ahead of Dmitry Orlov.

Defensive Zone Starts

As I’ve touched on in previous posts, a players defensive zone start time can be an indication of the level of trust a coach has in a player. The stat holds even more water under Laviolette, who has placed an even higher premium on defense from all of his players (see Daniel Sprong).

Once again Nick Jensen takes home top honors in this category. He begins just 31.21% of his starts in the offensive zone (or he starts 68.79 percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone). Simply put, he’s Laviolette’s most trusted defenseman. Dmitry Orlov is second with just 35.86 of his shift starts occurring in the offensive zone.

Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus

The fine folks at Evolving Hockey have developed a useful player evolution tool to compare a player’s level of play against other players at the same position, on the same team, within the league, etc. The tool “Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus” (RAPM) is aimed at controlling certain variables inherent with traditional stats and to provide a better measure of a player’s offensive or defensive ability. [Click to enlarge].

The model and resulting table above show that once again Jensen and Orlov rank atop the Capitals defensemen for GA/60 in the RAPM model.

Conclusion

The Athletic recently ranked Jesnen as the 11th best shutdown defenseman in the entire NHL. Dmitry Orlov did not make the top-20. (based on minutes played, five-on-five goals against, level of matchups, and Evolving Hockey’s regularized adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) tool).

As far as the Capitals are concerned, Jensen has clearly been the Capitals’ best defensive defenseman this season. It’s an impressive moniker for a player that was once deemed by many as a potential bust.

By Jon Sorensen

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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6 Responses to From Questionable Acquisition To The Capitals Best Shutdown Defenseman: Nick Jensen Has Come A Long Way

  1. steven says:

    Nick does a good job and like all players gets beat on occassion. I am most impressed with his growth and ability to make this team better on the D and IMHO has been #1 all year and Orlov #1A. Sorry to say but all this hype about Carlson is not looking good in the long run as he seems to have slowed.

    • Jon Sorensen says:

      Good way to put it, Steven. Carlson’s hype is all offensive, which sells tickets and draws in fans. Defensively, he doesn’t hold a candle to Jensen and Orlov.

  2. Marky says:

    This is impressive and while it was looking shaky a few years ago, he has more than fulfilled the value of his contract. -he had a bad game yesterday though…;)

  3. Anonymous says:

    I too was wanting to run him out of town in the early days. Good to see him reach these heights.

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