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Nick Jensen: Third-Pair Extraordinaire

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The best laid plans of mice and men, et cetera...

NHL: JAN 19 Capitals at Penguins Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the Washington Capitals acquired Nick Jensen from Detroit just over two years ago, they wasted no time making him part of their long-term plans, inking the pending free agent to a four-year, $10-million contract extension. At the time, GM Brian MacLellan described his new rearguard as “a reliable modern-day defenseman” who “can defend well and log valuable minutes.”

In retrospect, it’s clear what MacLellan thought he had in Jensen: a defensive-minded right-handed defenseman who could replace Matt Niskanen in the Caps’ top-four at less than half of the latter’s $5.75-million cap hit.

He was at least partially right - Jensen certainly is right-handed.

The Caps traded Niskanen to Philadelphia for decidedly third-pair mountain man Radko Gudas that offseason, but Jensen was unable to successfully handle the role that had been carved out for him. Whether it owes to his own limitations or flaws in Todd Reirden’s systems/structures, Jensen struggled at times during his first year-plus in Washington, and proved largely incapable of playing that top-four role that the had been envisioned.

So the Caps went out and brought in Justin Schultz over the summer (err, fall), and the Sudoku puzzle that is the starboard side of the blueline appears to be solved with reigning Norris Trophy runner-up John Carlson anchoring the top pair, Schultz off to a terrific start to his Caps career in the second duo, and Jensen slotting in on the third combo on what really is an incredibly well-balanced group in terms of ice time.

And Jensen, now 30, is thriving. The Caps’ expected goals-for (xGF) percentage of 55.6 with Jensen on the ice at five-on-five is tops among the team’s defensemen (his 67.7 xGF% playing alongside Dmitry Orlov is tops in the League among pairs with 80 minutes played together), and the Caps surrender shots on goal at the second-lowest rate in the League in those situations among D with at least 250 minutes played (only the Avs with Cale Makar on the ice are stingier, which... impressive). Here’s what that looks like, compared to last year:

via HockeyViz

Granted, context - Jensen is playing third-pair minutes, and has played a lot of those minutes with legitimate top-four defenseman Orlov. But the fact that Jensen is playing so well “in third-pair minutes” isn’t a knock on Jensen, it’s a feather in the cap of the coaching staff and management, who have put him in a position to succeed and maximized their asset. The difference is stark:

via HockeyViz

The charts on the left are last season, the right is this one. The pink rectangles show Jensen’s ice time by pairing. As you can see, last year he played mostly in the second pair (3/4), with a good bit of third pair (5/6) and even some first pair minutes (1/2). This year? Almost exclusively third pair duty, with a bit of time playing 2-4. His forward teammates are a little more bottom-six-heavy this year (as you’d expect), and the competition he’s faced is actually pretty similar (again, Laviolette seems to favor a pretty balanced blueline... especially when he has one that makes that possible). And it’s not as if Jensen’s strong underlying numbers have been goosed by favorable zone starts:

via Money Puck

It may be a little early to start the #Jenny4Norris campaign, though Jensen’s next assist will equal his total from last season (eight), and he seems poised to challenge his career-best in points (20), even in this shortened season. But it never was and never will be about the offense with Nick Jensen - Jensen has now played 107 games and put 112 shots on net for the Capitals without a goal (no skater in franchise history has played as many games or taken more shots without lighting the lamp).

Then again, if the challenge for the Caps was to find a role in which Nick Jensen could be a successful contributor to the team’s success... they seem to have achieved that goal.