The most glaring of the Red Wings problems in the last few years has been their weak blueline. Brendan Smith didn’t pan out as they hoped, the Jonathan Ericsson experiment has gone horribly wrong, and Niklas Kronwall’s ageing seems to have sped up since Nick Lidstrom’s retirement. Until the Mike Green signing last year, the team was in desperate need of a right-handed, puck moving defenseman. While Green helped a bit, he was still a ten year veteran giving the Red Wings blueline a combined 49 years of experience last season.
This season, the Red Wings defense corps was injected with youth when Kyle Quincey opted to sign with the New Jersey Devils as a UFA and Kronwall started the season on the IR. This gave Alexey Marchenko and Xavier Ouellet permanent spots on the roster while Ryan Sproul was a healthy scratch. In December, the team lost two defensemen to the IR so they called up Nick Jensen from Grand Rapids. Since then, Jensen has proved that he can perform at the NHL level by being the Red Wings best defenseman.
The Red Wings found themselves in a tricky situation this season with the roster, particularly with the defensemen. Their tendency to leave their prospects in the minors to overdevelop was suddenly clashing with the league’s waiver wire rules. Marchenko, Sproul, and Ouellet were all waiver-eligible going into the season, meaning they couldn’t be sent down to Grand Rapids without first passing through waivers. Starting the season with all three of them on the opening night roster was risky, but the Wings got lucky (unlucky?) as injuries allowed them to remain under the legal roster limit without exposing anyone to the waiver wire.
As the season wore on, the team got slammed with injuries and was required to call up Jensen on December 19th after losing Alexey Marchenko and Mike Green to the IR. At the time, it seemed like a safe decision as Jensen could play up to ten games in the NHL before having to go through the waivers.
Jensen immediately made an impact, assisting on the team’s only goal and recording two shots in the team’s 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. In the ensuing 8 games, Jensen added another three assists and 12 shots. That was the most points recorded by a defenseman on the team in that time frame. It was a good enough record, the team felt, to dress him for his tenth game of the season which came on January 14th against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
He added another assist in that game as well as three shots in the Wings 6-3 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions. Keeping him on the roster for this tenth game was a controversial decision. He was initially brought up to cover an injury and the Wings already had three young defensemen who were unable to pass through waivers in Sproul, Ouellet, and Marchenko. How could they justify keeping Jensen on when he could have safely been sent back to Grand Rapids? Now that Marchenko was back from injury, the team was healthy scratching two defensemen. When more injuries healed, they would be up against the legal roster size and they’d have to risk losing another young defenseman to the waivers.
And that’s just what happened. A little more than two weeks later, Brendan Smith returned from a knee injury and the Wings placed Marchenko on the waivers. He was quickly picked up by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
At the time, many, including myself, were critical of this decision. The team could have easily sent a waiver-exempt Jensen down and not lost another asset for nothing. It’s a frustrating pattern that the team has established and, even though none of the waiver losses in the past few years have really turned into NHL superstars, it would still be nice to get a late-round draft pick for them.
That being said, since the transaction, I’ve watched Jensen much closer and what I’ve seen has been very impressive. He’s fast, confident, and smart with the puck. For example, look at how he uses his strength and his speed to shield the puck from this Calgary forechecker and carry the puck out of the zone.
He makes a controlled zone exit and doesn’t give the puck up in the neutral zone. Instead, he carries it almost to the Calgary blueline before dumping it in for Larkin to chase. This sense of calm with the puck, especially in the defensive zone, is crucial for a defenseman to play in the NHL. The game is so fast and if you panic with the puck, it’s easy to create turnovers which, especially in your own zone, can be deadly.
Here’s another example of a controlled zone exit by Jensen off a defensive zone faceoff.
Here’s another angle of it with a better view of Jensen’s puck handling:
— Nick (@nickseguin19) March 4, 2017
What I love about this play is that not only does he safely get the puck out of his own zone, he follows the play and creates a scoring chance at the other end.
This isn’t a one-off, either. Jensen has a nose for the net. His situational awareness isn’t unique to the defensive zone. Look at this pretty little pass he makes to Andreas Athanasiou for a late-first period go ahead goal against the Chicago Blackhawks.
He’s so calm as he fakes the shot, does a nice little stickhandle, and passes it to Athanasiou who is very close to him.
Finally, and I promise this will be my last gif, I need to show his highlight reel goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He uses his speed to get a jump through the neutral zone then fakes the shot and goes around Matt Murray to bury it in the open net.
Again, he’s calm, he’s cool, and he’s confident.
These are just a few examples of his stellar play that I caught watching games, but it’s comforting to know that his underlying numbers back it up. As of March 19th, Jensen has played in 37 games and put up 9 points (all at 5v5, since he gets very little time on the PP or PK). That’s 0.98 P/60, which is second among team defensemen behind Mike Green. His stellar 51.55 5v5 on-ice CF% is good for 1st amongst team defensemen, 4th on the team, and top-80 amongst league defensemen. Perhaps even more impressive, Jensen has a 3.30 relCF% at 5v5, which is top-40 among league defensemen. He’s up there with Kris Letang and Jake Gardiner.
All that being said, it’s important to note that Jensen has been set up for success so far. His deployment has been incredibly sheltered as he only starts 27.5% of his shifts in the defensive zone. That’s the second lowest among team defensemen. This is partially due to him playing the majority of his time with Kronwall, who can’t handle that much defensive responsibility anymore. But lately, Blashill has shaken up the D-lines, so Jensen has been playing with Danny DeKeyser who starts more of his shifts in the defensive zone.
Image courtesy of Corsica.hockey
With the way Jensen has played so far, I’d like to see Blashill play him in more high pressure situations. As seen with the two examples above, he’s proved that he can play the puck responsibly in his own end. Why not test him on the penalty kill? He’s played the least amount of time at 4v5 among active team defensemen.
More than that, though, I think Jensen would make a great addition to the powerplay. He’s right-handed, fast, and puts himself in a good position to make an offensive contribution. His iCF% is 9.54 (2nd amongst team defensemen), his SF/60 is 4.45 (3rd among team defensemen) and his shooting percentage is 7.32% (2nd among team defensemen). At the very least, he’s an upgrade to Kronwall. At the most, he helps turn around a constantly struggling powerplay.
Jensen has had a good season so far and, if he keeps up his stellar play, he’ll continue to be rewarded by the coaching staff. At best, he’ll be a very serviceable middle-pairing defenseman in the NHL, but he needs to be given the trust and responsibility to carry the play. With the Red Wings now, for the most part, out of the playoff picture, I’d like to see Blashill playing his young players in more prominent roles. It’s a great way to acclimatize them to high-pressure situations on the ice and prepare them for next season when you want to be competitive again.