After kicking off the reviews of the Washington Capitals’ 2022-23 season performance with an analysis of the goaltenders and Alex Alexeyev, the next review in the series of the Capitals’ defensemen is Nick Jensen.
The Capitals acquired Jensen at the trade deadline back in the 2018-19 season, and promptly extended him to a four year extension that carried a $2.5M cap hit. With Jensen’s contract expiring at the end of the season, the Capitals and General Manager Brian MacLellan opted to not trade the pending unrestricted free agent during the sell-off at the deadline and instead, signed Jensen to a three year extension that will carry a $4.05M cap hit through the 2025-26 season.
The statistics used in this post are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, and HockeyViz. Contract and transaction information are courtesy of CapFriendly. If you’d like to learn more about the statistical terms used in this post, please check out our NHL Analytics Glossary.
PERFORMANCE DURING FIVE-ON-FIVE PLAY
We’ll start our evaluation of Jensen’s play in the most important game situation: five-on-five play. Here’s a breakdown of Jensen’s performance in key metrics this season:
To add more context to the aforementioned stats, here’s a month-to-month breakdown of Jensen’s performance in possession and shot generation/suppression:
At a season-long level, Jensen carried a 49.3 Corsi For percentage (CF%), a 48.61 Fenwick For percentage (FF%), and a 49.66 shots for percentage (SF%). After a bit of a rocky start in October, Jensen’s shot attempt and possession numbers stabilized a bit, typically hovering just above the 50% watermark.
The decline really hit hard in March and followed until the end of the season in April. This shouldn’t come as a huge shock to anyone, considering the Capitals sold at the deadline and continued to struggle in the standings, even with an opportunity to still qualify for the playoffs.
I’ll get into this tidbit a bit later in the post, but the biggest impact on Jensen’s effectiveness was typical defensive partner Dmitry Orlov being moved to Boston near the trade deadline. Orlov and Jensen were a fixture on the blue line together for the past few seasons, and that loss of chemistry is something that definitely impacted Jensen’s effectiveness down the stretch.
Here’s Jensen’s goals for percentage (GF%) and expected goals for percentage (xGF%) by month this season:
The season-long performance in GF% wasn’t exactly great for Jensen, especially in the two-month stretch in January and February. Those two months, though, the Capitals really struggled as a team after a scorching hot month of December, was likely predicated on the loss of John Carlson at the end of December, resulting in turmoil in the defensive pairings.
Although the GF% was rather inconsistent, the positive takeaway for Jensen here is that his xGF% remained rather constant throughout the season. It obviously trailed off a bit in the final three months of the season, but the team’s performance was definitely shaken by the sell-off at the trade deadline.
That level of consistency in xGF% over the course of the season still tells a positive story for Jensen, though. It means that he’s rather consistent over the course of the season, and his effectiveness surely wasn’t a problem for the Caps.
I want to point out January in particular here. Although the GF% was far below where the Caps (and Jensen himself) would want to be, his xGF% tracked nearly 20 percentage points above where his actual GF% ended up. There are two statistics that serve as possible explanations for this severe expected goal differential.
One, the on-ice save percentage while Jensen was on the ice during the month of January was .881. The only player with a worse on-ice save percentage was Alex Alexeyev, who played in only five games compared to Jensen’s 14 that month. The other is on-ice shooting percentage, where the team shot a paltry 5.76% while Jensen was on the ice. The result of a low shooting percentage and a low save percentage means a huge differential in GF% and xGF%.
I’m also not convinced that this differential was a result of defensive breakdowns, either. During the month of January, the Capitals controlled 53.62% of scoring chances for (SCF%) and 51.72% of high danger chances (HDCF%).
Here’s a look at the top four-most utilized pairings for Jensen this past season:
I mentioned this a bit earlier, but we can see that Jensen was by far the most effective when on a pairing with Dmitry Orlov. Those two were leaned upon a ton on tough deployments, receiving only 27.27% of their zone starts in the offensive zone.
I do have some concerns about the other pairings and their effectiveness, but considering most of these pairings were only really used after the Caps sold at the deadline, I’m reserving some judgement here.
I had high hopes for a Rasmus Sandin and Nick Jensen pairing. Those two are rather elite puck-moving defensemen, and are very smooth skaters on top of that. While the sample size is considerably lower than Jensen’s deployments with Orlov and Martin Fehervary, there’s not a ton of promise here in terms of some of these key metrics.
To be fair, the largest impact on the quality of these metrics for Jensen in particular is largely dependent on the quality of the roster around him while he’s on the ice. It’s clear that the roster had some fatal flaws this season, and that’s going to impact defensemen and goaltending the most.
PLAYER VALUE METRICS
First, let’s take a look at how Jensen has fared in Goals Above Replacement (GAR) and expected Goals Above Replacement (xGAR) this season compared to the rest of his career:
Jensen’s GAR value of 8 this season is nothing to scoff at. That means he’s a very valuable defenseman, and considerably above replacement level. Although his GAR value dropped from 19 last season to 8 this season, his xGAR actually improved this season. A large contributor to this drop in overall GAR was his offensive value. Last season, his offensive GAR (oGAR) say at a career high of 9.6. This season, it was -0.7.
Since 2019-20, the full season after the Caps acquired Jensen, he’s seen a steady upward trend in xGAR. Jensen, who’s 32, is a bit of a late bloomer. The biggest hope for the Caps (and Jensen) is that this positive xGAR trend continues for the next three seasons, since that indicates the quality of his play, but not the actual results on the ice. You can control quality of play, but you can’t always control results.
Here’s Jensen’s Rate-Adjusted Plus Minus, which is used to compare a player’s performance in key metrics at a rate of sixty minutes of play to the league average:
Since Jensen is leaned upon a bit more for his defensive acumen, it’s not necessarily surprising to see that his GF/60 falls a bit under the league average here. The positive sign is that he’s above the league average in everything else during even strength, especially in xGA/60. He also does well in suppressing shot attempts against compared to the league average.
Here’s Jensen’s individual isolated impact when he’s on the ice via HockeyViz:
Since Jensen does get a lot more difficult deployments, I’m not necessarily shocked to see that he has a -7% isolated impact in expected goals against per sixty (xGA/60).
2023-24 SEASON FORECAST
I’d expect Jensen to be utilized very similarly next season as he was this season. He’s a solid top four defenseman who will be leaned upon greatly in defensive zone deployments against opponents’ top offensive talent, as well as on the penalty kill.
The biggest question for me is: who will be on the left side of Jensen’s pairing? There are a ton of variables at play, such as: do the Capitals acquire another left-handed defenseman to add a bit more experience to that side of the defense? How does the next head coach intend on using Jensen, and who do they prefer to skate with him on a pairing?
To me, the right side of the defensive corps is pretty much set up. All three regulars are signed to multiple year deals and have been steady performers in DC, historically. The left side is where the biggest questions lay, and whoever is chosen to be on a pairing with Jensen is going to have a large impact on the effectiveness of Jensen’s performance.
By Justin Trudel
Justin — on the GF and xGF chart the lines are sometimes relatively close together and at other times diverge sharply (both in positive and negative directions). Is there any accepted understanding of why this happens? I know shooting percentage is considered to be rather random so maybe that explains it. Or perhaps just small sample size/random noise for those periods where they diverge. Or could there be a patterned explanation for the divergence?
Hey Dave, thanks for reading and for asking a really great question. It’s true that sample size often has an impact on the overall percentages for GF and xGF, and depending on how small that sample size is, you can see drastic swings in those differentials.
When the GF% exceeds xGF% there’s usually a couple factors at play. One, like you mentioned, is shooting percentage. Typically, when GF% exceeds xGF% and you see a positive expected goals differential, it means the team is finishing at a higher rate than expected, meaning more shots are hitting the back of the net than there were quality chances. The inverse is true when xGF% outpaces GF. If you’re finishing at a lower rate than expected (or your goalie is failing to make the expected saves), you’ll see GF% plummet while xGF% might remain constant.
Shooting percentage can be a volatile stat when looking at smaller sample sizes, but I’ve touched on the Caps’ struggles in that regard a couple times. It’s not so much a Jensen issue, but a roster construction and execution issue at the team level.
I think the pattern overall is quality of roster due to injuries and an aging group of core players, as well as the quality of the roster after the team sold off some pretty high quality assets on expiring contracts. When there’s ups and downs in goaltending performance, you’ll also see some of those swings in GF and xGF.
Thanks Justin, this is really helpful!
As you indicated, there are few questions/issues on the right side of the Caps D for next year, assuming everybody stays healthy (I know, a bad assumption).
The questions are on the left side, and in my mind, the biggest one is Sandin. He is good as an offensive defenseman, but I have not been impressed by his defensive capabilities. I’m not sure what his fancy stats will show us (tomorrow?), but my eyeballs showed a player having trouble with defensive positioning and with neutralizing opposition players going to the net. He often loses his man (or his man loses him) and even when he is in position, he fails to tie up his mark.
I also think the forwards are a big part of the Caps defensive struggles. NHL defense really is really dependent on all five skaters, particularly in the modern game where there are so many defenseman with excellent offensive capabilities. Other than the 4th line when Hathaway was there, the Caps forwards really struggled with defensive coverage, particularly the top-6.
This is a problem that can’t be fixed entirely by roster changes (though sending 92 away would help), since one of the biggest culprits is the face of the franchise, but he isn’t the only weak-defending forward who is still likely to be around next year. Whoever ends up coaching this team needs to address this weakness in whatever way necessary — system, motivation, whatever — otherwise this team will struggle next year too.
Sandin’s defensive play is definitely a question mark right now. I wonder how much a part of Sandin’s struggles were due to adjusting to a new defensive system, but I’d also expect him to get better over time, considering he is only 23.
I’m expecting that we might see some defensive zone scheme changes with the new coaching staff. The team is capable of being effective — they showed that in December this past season. If we get more months like December next season (and injuries are reduced), then the Caps should make the playoffs next season.