In this installment of our player previews, the focus shifts to Jonathan Ericsson and Nick Jensen — two players that couldn’t be more opposite in defensive style. The veteran Ericsson is definitely trending down at this stage of his career (believe me Ken Holland when I say there is nothing to cling to), while Jensen has seemingly leap-frogged a few defensemen in the Red Wings prospect pool.
Ericsson has that dreadful three years remaining on his contract with a $4.25M AAV, that the front office was unsuccessful in moving this offseason via trade or the buyout window. Jensen on the other hand, inked a two-year deal worth $1.625M last season and it would appear it is one of the better value contracts on Detroit’s roster.
A little bit of background on both players...
Ericsson stands 6’4” and 220 lbs. and was the last selection by the Red Wings of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, 291st overall in the 9th round. He was virtually a write off to be an NHL player, but he has climbed the ladder over the years and developed into a solid defensive defenseman for the club. Of course, at 33, he’s a far cry from where he used to be when first breaking into the league and the new fast-paced NHL is something he can’t keep up with.
Jensen comes in at 6’0” and 196 lbs. — a smaller stature from his Red Wings counterpart — and was selected 150th overall in the 5th round of the 2009 by the Red Wings. Jensen, like Ericsson, is a homegrown prospect that played three years in the NCAA at St. Cloud State University before joining Grand Rapids in the AHL. During the 2012-13 season, Jensen won NCAA Defensive Player of the Year honors — a list that includes Colton Parayko, Justin Schultz and former Red Wing Brendan Smith. He’s an intriguing two-way defenseman with great puck moving ability and the front office should be excited about what the future holds for him on their blue line.
Last Season’s Performance
Ericsson’s season was cut short in February after needing wrist surgery and he recorded a lone goal with nine points in just 51 games. Jensen made his Red Wings debut just before Christmas and would go on to appear in 49 games, finishing with four goals and 13 points. Similar point totals for both players and the two combined for a minus-9 rating last season. Let’s face it, the entire Detroit blue line was a mess last season and there were not many bright spots. However, Jensen provided the Wings with some great skating ability and a quick first pass out of the zone last year, something they have been lacking for the past few seasons (hence the Trevor Daley signing).
A promising statistical output was that of Jensen’s 5v5 CF% of 50.4% that led all Red Wings defensemen with at least 25 games played. Ericsson on the other hand finished with his lowest 5v5 CF% of his career at 46.4%. The Swedish defenseman has been trending downward since 2013-14, finishing below the 50% mark in each of the past three seasons. Sure, Ericsson provides some size and stability to the Red Wings penalty kill that finished middle of the pack last year at 80.8% (16th). But, there is no denying the franchise missed a golden opportunity to move his contract (or at least lessen the burden) this summer and players like Jensen are ready to step into more regular ice time.
This Season’s Expectations
There is a big difference in what should happen and what will happen for both these players come October. The blue line is crowded with nine defensemen (Luke Witkowski may adjust to forward) currently under contract and another waiting in the wings for a new deal in Robbie Russo. Jensen clearly made a big step last year in showing the Red Wings brass that he belongs on the NHL stage — yes, it’s only 49 games, but he looks more promising than others — and his speed, paired with solid vision makes him a must play in the lineup every night. Will that happen? The signing of Daley this summer certainly leaves some reason to question any regularity to Jensen’s minutes and Mike Green remains on the roster at least for this year — both share similar traits to Jensen’s game. Xavier Ouellet and Ryan Sproul will likely battle it out for minutes and if the head coach Jeff Blashill were smart, he wouldn’t include Jensen in that mix.
As for Ericsson, we could talk ad nauseum about Holland’s decision not to part ways with #52 during the offseason. Whether it was the uncertainty of who could fill the void this year from the AHL or some veteran players twisting his arm into keeping him around for leadership purposes, his contract still remains as we approach October. Ericsson has lost a step and the new wave of talent coming into the NHL isn’t going to slow down. It’s a problem to have him on the blue line as I would much rather see a younger Ouellet get more minutes and learn from the veterans. If the coaching staff and management is concerned about a shutdown role in the lineup, then I’m not so sure Ouellet can’t provide that? The team is in the process of a re-build and what’s one more minor headache due to a few growing pains? It’s definitely concerning that Holland elected to pass on ridding himself of Ericsson’s contract in order to sign a budding young star in Andreas Athanasiou. I would like to think the team will try to bury his contract in Grand Rapids, but unfortunately I just don’t see that happening and the big Swede will likely take up more minutes this year that could be granted to a younger Red Wings defenseman.