Not every game will follow the same script as Tuesday night’s contest, but a piece of it could serve as a model for what the Washington Capitals hope to do with their blue line down the stretch. When the final horn sounded on the team’s 7-2 thrashing of the Ottawa Senators, no defenseman had skated more than 21 minutes, and the Capitals’ three right-handed shots had a nearly equal workload. Nick Jensen clocked in at 20:01, as did John Carlson, and Matt Niskanen was the leader with 20:48.
That was largely dictated by the lack of ice time for the special teams — each team was called for just one penalty — and a lopsided score that allowed Coach Todd Reirden to just roll his lineup. But it spoke to one of Washington’s aims in acquiring Jensen and then signing him to a four-year extension.
“To me, Jensen takes a little off John Carlson,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think we can get his minutes down a little bit, mostly five-on-five and [penalty kill], so we can help him out there, keep him a little fresher. He can take Niskanen’s minutes down a little bit. I think it just keeps everybody a little fresher, playing with a little more energy.”
Jensen was playing more than 20 minutes per game for Detroit this season, often against top forwards, and it’s that ability and the flexibility he provides that attracted the Capitals to him. In the short term, he could bring balance and depth to the defensive corps while also strengthening Washington’s leaky penalty kill. In the long term, Jensen brings even more stability to a blue line that already had Carlson, Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov and Michal Kempny locked up for at least the two seasons after this one — and he has a team-friendly $2.5 million cap hit. With Jensen having already shown he can handle a top-four role, the Capitals have options for more roster changes going forward.
“I was obviously playing a pretty good amount of minutes back in Detroit, and I don’t expect to come in here and play those kind of minutes,” Jensen said. “There’s D here that know how to get the job done, and I’m coming in hopefully to relieve them of some of the stress there can be playing like 28 minutes a game, for Carlson, so hopefully it’s wherever they need it. I don’t want to take minutes away from guys, and I don’t want to throw them off their game or anything.”
Just as the Capitals did with Kempny a year ago, they are easing Jensen in as he transitions to a new team with a new system. He has played on a third pairing with Brooks Orpik in his first two games, and Reirden said that was in part to provide Jensen with a veteran who could best help him learn Washington’s style of play.
The trickle-down effect of that is second-year defenseman Christian Djoos getting pushed out of the lineup less than a month after he returned from left thigh surgery, brought on by compartment syndrome. MacLellan said he is leaving the choice between Orpik and Djoos up to Reirden, and the two defensemen are polar opposites in style. While Djoos is more offensively inclined, a breakout wizard who excels at moving the puck up the ice, Orpik is a penalty killer who plays with a physical edge.
Orpik has rarely come out of the lineup for any reason other than injury, but Washington almost certainly plans to keep Djoos fresh with some game action down the stretch and experiment with different defensive alignments to see what works best for the postseason. Reirden said Djoos’s play in the eight games since he returned from injury has yet to match the level from before he went down, but the defenseman was a factor in the team’s Stanley Cup run, playing in all but two of last season’s playoff games.
“It’s a major surgery that he had,” Reirden said. “He’s doing some of the things that he has but probably not at the consistency level that he had earlier. That’s part of dealing with a major injury. We’ll continue to get him up to that level, and when we can, we’ll have him in there and take a look at some different combinations.”
The Capitals have additional depth with rookie Jonas Siegenthaler, who played in 25 NHL games this season but is now back in the American Hockey League. MacLellan said he will be with the Capitals for any playoff run, though he is presumably still behind both Orpik and Djoos in the pecking order. Djoos is a restricted free agent this summer, meaning he probably will be re-signed, while Orpik will be an unrestricted free agent and, at 38 years old, has acknowledged that his future is “year to year.” Siegenthaler appears poised to eventually replace him on the roster.
“We’re high on Siegenthaler," MacLellan said. "He’s played well. I think he’s done a great job this year in the games that he’s played. He started to fade a little bit at the end there, so I think it’s probably a good thing that he went back down. I see him as a good young player. He’ll be in our lineup next year, I imagine, if he continues to play the way he’s been playing.”
How the Capitals plan to integrate Siegenthaler, as well as defense prospects Lucas Johansen and Alex Alexeyev, both first-round picks, in the coming seasons remains a question, but a surplus beats a deficiency. And adding Jensen to that mix gives Washington even more confidence in its blue line not only for this season but also for years to come.
“I expect Jensen to fit in really well," MacLellan said. "It’s nice to have a back end like that.”