Jensen (centre) celebrates a goal with line-mates Boon Jenner and Lucas Lessio.
Canucks prospect Nicklas Jensen does it all for the Oshawa Generals. He plays on the first penalty-kill unit, he’s been deployed in the slot, along the half-wall and at the point on the first unit power-play (which has finally begun to congeal, and become potent). At even-strength he plays difficult minutes, and based on their deployment, Jensen’s line (he plays regularly with 2nd round picks Boone Jenner and Lucas Lessio) is clearly Oshawa’s featured two-way group.
On Sunday, the Generals rolled into Brampton with an opportunity to clinch a postseason birth, and they made few mistakes on their way to a commanding 5-2 victory. Sure, they were out-chanced handily through the first forty minutes, and Generals goaltender Mark Baile had to be solid – but that’s to be expected when a team jumps out to an early lead like the Generals did Sunday afternoon. Oshawa was well-rested, having enjoyed a week off between games, and it showed.
Jensen’s line in particular, did significant damage and had all kinds of pressure on a shift late in the 2nd period that ultimately resulted in Jensen’s game-winning goal. It seemed to me that Jensen and his line-mates played a style vaguely reminiscent of what we see in Vancouver with the so called "Amex line." At least on Sunday, they played a decidedly "north-south" style reliant on individual free-styling with the puck, and winning physical battles to drive play.
The line’s two goals came off of broken plays (one on the forecheck and another off of a faceoff) and though Jensen created a Boone Jenner chance early in the second period with a nice touch through the neutral zone: they didn’t produce, or look to produce, many intricate passing plays. So I found it interesting that when I asked Jensen to describe the style his line likes to play, he said that, "[Lucas, Boone and I] have to work together, or we’re not good together. When we pass and skate – we can be one of the best lines in the league, but when we don’t we’re just a regular line." That may be selling his line short, as they were definitely effective playing a more "mucking" style of hockey on Sunday.
Having followed the Generals closely this season, and covered a handful of games: I’d proffer that Jensen’s two-way play has appreciably developed over the course of this season. While he finished the game narrowly under-water in chance differential (-1), he was deployed more often in the defensive end (8 dzone starts) than in the offensive end (5 ozone starts) so that comes out in the wash. On one sequence in the second period with the score close, Boone Jenner was waived out of the circle on a defensive zone start, and Jensen cleanly won the draw, allowing the Generals to clear the puck without surrendering a Corsi event against. He played quality minutes on the penalty-kill as well, and the Generals didn’t surrender a single short-handed chance against while Jensen was on the ice.
"To make it to the next level you have to focus on your play both ways," Jensen explained post game. "I’m naturally more of an offensive player… But that’s what I’m trying to do, just get better defensively." My impression is that Jensen’s efforts to improve in his own end have paid off. He made a couple of good reads to break up Brampton’s puck-possession, and was strong along the boards allowing the Generals to clear the zone on several occasions.
Jensen’s offensive skill set is a known quantity: he’s got an NHL caliber shot, a solid collection of power-moves down-low in the offensive zone (though he’ll need to get stronger to pull those off in the show) and his puck moving ability is stand-out. His defense has also come a long way over the past six months or so. That said, the knock on the Danish winger heading into last June’s NHL draft was his penchant for inconsistency. Here’s what friend of the blog Kirk Luedeke said about Jensen prior to last years draft:
"While Jensen brings some real impressive talents and abilities to the mix, Jensen has to keep his compete levels at a higher level. If Boone Jenner’s motor was installed inside this kid, he’d be a top-three pick- no kidding."
Jensen has dropped the gloves this season (and looked good doing it), and improved his defensive game, but I’m still not sure he’s done enough to shed that "needs to compete harder" label. Despite Jensen’s productive game on Sunday, he went quiet for stretches relative to his line-mates, who seemed to be constantly skating through or around the opposition.
The "compete level" canard isn’t something I generally put a lot of stock in. After all: would you rather employ a smart, skilled player or Ryan Jones? Without the puck, for example, Jensen is calculating and doesn’t show a lot of pace or urgency. In the defensive end of the rink that can work to his advantage, and he smartly picked off several Brampton passes simply by being in the right position. On offense, however, he’ll certainly need to work harder to get open if he wants to be a thirty goal scorer in the NHL.
Jensen has had a successful season, and he had a strong game on Sunday. But, when you see what he can do on the ice: feathering tape-to-tape passes to his line-mates through defenders in the neutral zone, or unleashing his powerful wrist-shot in the slot, it seems like he should be a force of nature at the major junior level. For all of his potential, he’s not as dominant as one reasonably suspects he could be.
This fall, Jensen was one of the Canucks last cuts out of training camp and some thought he had a shot at making the big club. With the Generals this season, he’s improved his offensive production (his NHLE has jumped from 23 points last season to 27 this season) and he’s made clear strides as a two-way player. Depending on Oshawa’s ultimate fate in the OHL playoffs, I suspect that Jensen will get a taste of AHL postseason action this spring and I’d wager he’s ready to succeed at that level. Jensen can do it all, and his development is coming along nicely, but he still has a ways to go before we pencil him into the Canucks top-six for next season.