Skating, defense give Nick Jensen staying power with Red Wings

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit – It really is startling when you consider how far Nick Jensen has come.

Jensen didn’t have a great training camp. Things weren’t going good for him – Jensen appeared to be fighting the puck – and there were several young defensemen pushing to make the Detroit Red Wings roster.

Nick Jensen

Jensen’s spot on the depth chart looked shaky.

Then, after a rash of injuries at the end of camp, the Wings decided to keep Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek, Joe Hicketts and Libor Sulak on the opening night roster.

Those four dressed for the opener against Columbus on Oct. 4.

Nick Jensen did not.

“A little bit of a wake-up call,” Jensen said recently of being healthy scratch for that opener.

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Jensen was back in the lineup the next game, three days later in Los Angeles. Jensen had a fine game and stayed in the lineup the next night in Anaheim.

And the game after that – and every game since.

The Wings are 50 games into their season and Jensen has played in 49. He’s averaging just under 21 minutes (20:45) – and has played well over 20 minutes in games in recent weeks.

Jensen, 28, is in the second year of a two-year contract worth $1.625 million. He can be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season – if he’s not dealt before the Feb. 25 trade deadline.

Given the likely retirement of Niklas Kronwall after this season, along with a trend toward younger defensemen in this lineup, Jensen would be a low-cost, dependable option.

It’s been quite a transformation for Jensen, who wasn’t shocked by being an opening night healthy scratch.

“It wasn’t like they didn’t talk to me about it,” Jensen said of the coaching staff. “It’s not like they blindsided me. They talked to me about it and I understood.

“I wasn’t happy about it. But that’s the way this league is. I just thought of it as the next opportunity I get, I’m going to make sure I make it count.”

Jensen has 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 49 games, with a minus-2 rating. The 20:45 of ice time per game is fourth on the team.

Skating is Jensen’s strength, along with a tenacious mentality on the defensive end, which pleases coach Jeff Blashill.

“His strengths are his ability to skate and close on people; he uses his skating as a defensive weapon,” Blashill said. “He’s done that on a consistent basis. He got away from it around the time we lost to Washington (early December) but he’s got back on track with it where he closes on people hard.

“He can close on people in the defensive end and he’s been a real good penalty killer.

“With injuries, there’s been opportunities, and he’s made the most of that opportunity.”

Blashill felt confidence was an issue with Jensen in training camp.

“Skating is never an issue (with Jensen),” Blashill said. “He was fighting the puck, his decision making, and his confidence, for whatever reason, it slipped a little bit and it just got away from him (in training camp).

“But, again, he’s done a good job since then of playing to his strengths. He’s a real competitor.”

With his age and experience, Jensen stands out as a veteran on this young, rebuilding roster.

Jensen remembers when he was on the other end, just breaking into the NHL. Watching the older defensemen on the roster provided valuable lessons.

“I was always watching,” Jensen said. “I remember I’d be on the bench and watching (Mike) Green, (Danny) DeKeyser, (Niklas) Kronwall, (Jonathan) Ericsson. I’d be trying to watch what they do and how they play. How they would manage a game, and kind of put that in the memory bank.”

Red Wings at Oilers

Faceoff: 9 p.m. Tuesday, Rogers Place, Edmonton, Alberta

TV/radio: NBCSN/97.1 FM

Outlook: The Oilers (23-23-3, 49) have lost their last two games, including an ugly 7-4 home setback Sunday against Carolina. … The Oilers are three points off a wild-card spot and badly need victories. … C Connor McDavid (29 goals, 43 assists) is having another MVP-caliber season. … The Wings are off for nine days (All-Star weekend and bye) after this game.

Twitter: @tkulfan