With the trade deadline less than a month away, the Detroit Red Wings will be looking to the future.
With rebuilding seemingly becoming accepted by not just fans, but management as well, trading away pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) players seem inevitable.
One such player that Detroit is looking to trade away is right handed defencemen, Nick Jensen. While not a point producer, Jensen is a darling in the analytics community. At 29 years old, he is at the tail end of the prime of his career which means the Red Wings will be more than willing to get the best return they can for a player that won’t be around at the end of their rebuild.
Detroit is a team that isn’t very good at getting the puck out of its own end and transitionally they don’t generate a ton from their back end. While Mike Green and Dennis Cholowski do a decent job at moving the puck, Nick Jensen is their best defensemen at positively affecting the transition game. Figure 1 (visuals/figures made by Corey Sznajder) below shows the Red Wings defensive zone exits as a team. They are among the worst when it comes to team wide production.
Where Jensen Excels
What makes Jensen an analytics darling is his ability to not only prevent zone entries, but also get the puck out of his zone with efficiency. Jensen is elite at zone exits which means the team isn’t hemmed into their own zone and they can get back on the attack.
Not only is he elite among his team, but he is actually an outlier among blue liners in the league. When looking at figure 2, there are two extreme outliers. Erik Karlsson and Nick Jensen. This isn’t meant to say that Jensen and Karlsson are the same player, they aren’t. What this is meant to show is that Jensen is a player who aids his team in exiting the zone with efficiency that is only exceeded by maybe the best defencemen since Bobby Orr.
While Jensen doesn’t exit the zone with possession of the puck as much as Karlsson, he does exceed the Swede in zone exits per 60 minutes. This means that he is either making passes to or through the neutral zone or he is making the safe, less efficient play in banking it off the glass and out. He is among the best puck movers from defensive to neutral zone in the NHL and the statistics back that up.
Jensen’s Shot Contributions
The graph in figure 3 also shows that Jensen is about as even as you can get in terms of shots vs shot assists. This means that not only is Jensen putting up a good number of shots but his shots are creating rebounds that are being put in the net. This is an underrated part of Jensen’s game as he isn’t known as an offensive defensemen, but he provides value in that he is getting looks from the point and putting the shot where the goalie has to kick out a rebound. While he isn’t as elite at this as he is at transitioning the puck from the defensive zone, he is a top end contributor and the best defensemen on the Wings when it comes to this skill.
Jensen’s Entry Defense
While Jensen isn’t an absolute physical presence, he skates well enough and is good with his stick to the point that he prevents the opposing team from entering his own defensive zone as shown in figure 4. While he’s not elite in this category, he is well above average and when he does allow a zone entry, often times it is when the opposing team is playing dump and chase hockey which isn’t as effective as when the opposing team can have a controlled entry. He steps up and closes his gaps good enough that the opposing player has to choose to either attempt to get around Jensen or dump the puck in and hope for help.
Where Jensen Struggles
With the ability to move the puck out of the zone at such a high level, one would assume that Jensen would be a high point producer. However, this isn’t the case. While Jensen can get the puck out of the defensive zone with efficiency he is often left out of the play in the offensive end. With a career high of 15 points, he isn’t going to blow you away or contribute to your power play.
Jensen’s good defence doesn’t come from being a physical force. A team won’t be acquiring Jensen in order to inject some toughness into the lineup. He is 6th on his team in hits with 55 in 50 games for about 1.1 hits per game.
Jensen also doesn’t generate offensive zone entries all that well. He is slightly below league average in zone entries. This could be from a tendency to pass off in the neutral zone to a more skilled forward rushing up the wing. The chart (Figure 5) below shows that while Jensen isn’t a risk or wasting opportunities, he also isn’t driving the play through the neutral zone.
The Cost of a Hidden Gem
Nick Jensen doesn’t generate a ton of counting stats in the goals and points department and he isn’t throwing big hits like his teammate Niklas Kronwall. This means he doesn’t play a game that catches your eye. Players like this generally don’t cost a lot. A draft pick ranging from a 3rd to 5th round pick is to be expected. If multiple teams come calling there could be some combo of mid round picks.
Teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche are all teams that could be interested in a player like Jensen. Teams that are looking to make an upgrade on that back end and are either fighting for positioning in Toronto’s case, or fighting to get into and stay in the playoffs in Edmonton and Colorado’s case.
The fact that Jensen is cheap in terms of what a team will have to pay in a trade and what Jensen is making in the final year of his deal ($812,500), he may end up being the steal of the trade deadline. He could be an under the radar add that could truly push a team to a deep playoff run if used correctly. Pairing him with someone like Jake Gardiner in Toronto or Oscar Klefbom in Edmonton could be the perfect fit to help propel a team to contender status.
stats from NHL.com, hockey-reference.com and Corey Sznajder
featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals