With Washington Capitals defenceman Michal Kempny ruled out for the remainder of the season after surgery for a torn hamstring, Capitals coach Todd Reirden is onto his next experiment with his defensive pairings.
Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens, the top defensive pairing was slated to be defenceman John Carlson playing on the left, his off side, and Nick Jensen situated to his right. Defenceman Christian Djoos had been skating on the left to complement Carlson after Kempny’s injury, but Thursday’s game will signal the first game Carlson and Jensen will start together on the first pairing.
“We’re working through that process right now of finding the right people to do it,” said Reirden of finding Kempny’s replacement. “We’ve had some good games with some different combinations and some that we’d like to change as well, so we’ll keep working for that perfect lineup dependent upon opponent, to be specific.”
The move gives Jensen a promotion to top blue-line minutes, an area Reirden said he wanted to look at a little more heavily. For Carlson, the move will bump him to his off side, a place he has some familiarity with due to the fluidity of Washington’s defensive system. Carlson and Jensen have also skated together for a few shifts during in-game adjustments.
“A lot of times playing our system, guys end up on different sides a lot,” Reirden said. “Some are better at it than others and that’s probably been a little bit of a different adjustment for Jensen with him coming over. For the most part, our guys, they take reps on both sides and have that ability, and that’s something that’s been a little different for him. For the most part, we would want to have John on the left side primarily in that situation.”
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Carlson said he’s comfortable playing on his off side, he just has to play “a little less instinctual on the other side.”
“I’m not going to say it’s normal, but in some ways it’s easier and in some ways it is a little more challenging,” Carlson said. “Depending on the teams we play it could be harder or easier based on where they are coming from.
“I think for me, I’ve gotten more on the outside than I would have liked on rushes so yeah I mean I don’t know if prepared differently, but your thought in certain situations, you have to be a little more aware.”
With right-shot defencemen already an irregularity, it is very uncommon for two right-handed defencemen to play together. When players play on their off side, more often than not, left-handed defencemen play the right side versus right-handed defencemen playing the left side, Reirden explained.
Playing on one’s off side is a lot about footwork, making sure players are keeping themselves at an angle when they are receiving the puck, so they can get it to a spot where they can still deliver it to all options.
“A lot of times when you’re playing the off side, you end up next to the boards and you have no passing lane toward the boards, so you can only use the middle of the ice, which often times will cause turnovers,” Reirden said.
Jensen sees playing two right shots side by side as a potential for positive opportunities. Jensen said knowing Carlson is playing on his off side means he will have to place pucks for a right shot, not a lefty, since if he were to throw pucks normally, it would always be to Carlson’s backhand.
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“It can be interesting,” Jensen said. “I mean offensively, you kind of have a one-timer set up with a really skilled player like John so having him over there and that weapon in the O-zone can be pretty exciting and (we’ll) see what he can do.”
When Jensen was in Detroit, he didn’t play on his off side due to the Red Wings’ defensive system and lack of right-shots in the organization.
“For me, (Jensen is) still getting comfortable with everything we’re doing, but his skating needs to and has been a factor for us and his ability to defend that way,” Reirden said. “I think he’s done a good job getting pucks through from the blue line, a couple primary assists with tips at the front of the net. The forwards like the way he delivers the puck that way. We’re still working to get better.”
The Capitals were in position to clinch the Metropolitan Division on Thursday night with either a win against the Canadiens in any fashion or a New York Islanders loss to the Florida Panthers in regulation.