Nick Jensen was just a Minnesota boy who played his first three seasons in Detroit.
Then he walked into the Washington Capitals’ locker room and saw the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who welcomed their newest defenseman with open arms.
“I never knew them before this and I just see them on TV, and it’s a little star-striking right away,” Jensen said.
Jensen isn’t a star, but he and winger Carl Hagelin sure fit the mold of low key trade-deadline acquisitions who can pay big dividends during a long playoff run. The Capitals learned last year in getting defenseman Michal Kempny how a seemingly small trade can make a big difference, and the defending Stanley Cup champions are among the teams that made low-risk moves at last month’s trade deadline in hopes of reaping a high reward.
Vegas paid a big price to land winger Mark Stone, Winnipeg gave up its first-rounder for center Kevin Hayes and both teams are better for those pickups. Yet recent history shows contenders who tinkered rather than made a splash at the deadline got it right.
“To bring in people that are going to take major roles from some of your core guys, it starts to create some issues,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said. “Any time you have a chance to improve your players and acquire depth and give them a better opportunity to win, you don’t ever pass it up. But it’s something that seems like it’s been a successful one for us last year with a little bit of an under the radar acquisition and then this year the same thing.”
Before the 2018 Capitals, the 2016 Penguins got Hagelin and defenseman Justin Schultz before the deadline, and a year later added Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit for blue line depth and repeated as champions even without Kris Letang. The 2015 Blackhawks similarly added forwards Antoine Vermette and Andrew Desjardins and defenseman Kimmo Timonen before winning their third championship in six seasons.
While Columbus went all in to get forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel even with pending free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, other playoff teams tweaked to fill existing holes. Nashville paid reasonable prices to upgrade up front with Wayne Simmonds and Mikael Granlund. Winnipeg made perhaps its most important pickup with unheralded defenseman Nathan Beaulieu and Pittsburgh responded to injuries by trading for defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Chris Wideman.
“We feel like we picked up some good pieces,” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. “But for the most part, this is the group that we’ve got to get on the page and get going in the right direction.”
Perhaps one reason minor deadline moves have as big an impact as substantial ones is there’s only a quarter of a season for players to get acclimated to their new teammates. It’s an ongoing process of watching video, studying and adjusting and it all happens on the fly in the midst of valuable games.
“You have to make an impact pretty quickly,” Gudbranson said. “Just play my game, be physical, make the simple play, be solid and just communicate quite a bit.”
NHL general managers have approved adding small digital clocks embedded in rink boards in all four corners beginning next season, an improvement that could add the odd goal or two because players won’t have to look up at a scoreboard for the time anymore.
“It’s a good idea,” Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk said. “You have an awareness of how much time is on the clock no matter what, but to see it, especially toward the end of a period or whatever may be happening, I think it’s only a good thing for players to have that.”
The league’s Board of Governors must approve the idea first for it to become a reality in all arenas.
The goal that haunts Buffalo Sabres fans isn’t etched in Ken Hitchcock’s memory. Twenty years since he coached the Dallas Stars to the Cup — a series that ended with Brett Hull’s infamous “skate in the crease” overtime goal — Hitchcock has barely watched the game.
“I watched the game that we lost to New Jersey (in the 2000 Final) 20 times, and I know every shift,” said Hitchcock, who now coaches Edmonton. “I know everything that went on in that Jersey game. But I never looked at (Game 6 in 1999) until it came up in the summer on the NHL Network, and there was a one-hour highlight package that they show on games. That’s the first time I saw it.”
GAME OF THE WEEK
The Blue Jackets need all the points they can get as they claw for a playoff spot, and it doesn’t get much bigger than their game against the Penguins on Saturday night.
LEADERS (through Monday)
Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 45; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 75; Points: Kucherov, 106; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:59; Goals-against average: Jordan Binnington (St. Louis), 1.68; Save percentage: Binnington, .933.