Green Bay Gamblers defenseman Nick Jensen entered the USHL under the radar, having played high school hockey in a lesser conference in Minnesota, and has even flown under the radar a bit on Green Bay this year, competing with a number of veteran junior hockey defensemen for icetime. However, he has received steady icetime and he hasn't gone entirely unnoticed. The 6-foot-1, 187-pound blueliner impressed early in the season with his defensive game and sound puck movement but has now transitioned closer to the offensive defenseman he was for Rogers/Zimmerman in high school, displaying a level of speed and agility with the puck not far off that of highly-regarded USHL prospect John Moore. Any scout that has seen Jensen over the course of 2008-09 knows that the St. Cloud State recruit can play the game any way you want to play it and has a real chance at being an impact defenseman in the USHL when he returns in 2009-10.
McKeen's correspondent Kevin Wey recently had the opportunity to talk with Jensen. The young defenseman discussed his transition to the USHL, his successful high school career, his commitment to St Cloud State, his youth hockey and the impact his NHL-drafted father had on him, the upcoming 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and growing up a big fan of Elk River's high school team and looking up to Paul Martin.
McKeen's: Tonight marks the 50th game of the 2008-09 USHL regular season for the Gamblers, so only 10 more to go in your rookie season in the USHL. So, with those months to look back, what have been the biggest adjustments for you coming to the USHL out of Rogers/Zimmerman (Minnesota high school hockey)?
Jensen: Well, obviously the pace of the game, it's so much faster. The USHL is so much faster than the Minnesota high school league. High school helped me develop really well, but it was a big change coming over here. The biggest thing I probably had to work on was moving the puck quick, because back at Rogers I could probably hold the puck a lot more, I skated up a little bit. You've got to move the puck quick in this league. So, that's one thing I've had to make an adjustment on.
McKeen's: I imagine there have been some big off-ice changes, too.
Jensen: Yep. Training a lot more, pretty much every day. I didn't really do any (pauses), I tried doing some off-ice training back at Rogers, but nothing like this. It's pretty intense training.
McKeen's: How do you feel your USHL season has gone and why?
Jensen: I think it's gone pretty well. I came to this league to improve over the season, and I definitely feel like I've been getting better and better throughout the season. So, I think it's really helped. I think it's gone very well.
McKeen's: That goes right into my next question. What are some of those areas that you've been focusing on improving, and you mentioned one, and how have you been addressing some of those areas?
Jensen: I've been having to work on my d-zone a lot more. Back when I was in high school, I was more of an offensive defenseman. At the beginning of the year I played a lot more defensive, and as the year went on I progressed and got use to it and got use to the pace, so I could play a little more offense along with the defense that I worked.
McKeen's: I guess that matches my notes on you over the course of the season. Early in the season, they revolved around you keeping close gaps, stepping up in the neutral zone or the blueline, playing the body, and now it's a little more, especially last week when you didn't have as many vets in the lineup. You got a lot more icetime and I took a lot of notes on how well you were moving the puck.
McKeen's: That's good. That means I'm not off base. We talked about this a bit already, but what are the areas of your game that you consider your strengths and what style of play would you say you play?
Jensen: Umm, well, like I said before, I like to be offensive, and I started out a little more defensive, but right now, I like to join the play a lot more. At the same time, I like to work on playing defense, too. I'd kind of like to have both offense, joining the play, and then playing defense at the same time.
McKeen's: The hockey scouting community has complimented Chicago Steel defenseman John Moore a lot on his skating this year, but watching you, you don't look too far off Moore in that department, and I've read an interview with your high school coach where he complimented your skating as well. At what point did it become apparent that you were such a good skater and what were some of the things you did to develop that?
Jensen: Well (pauses to think), I always thought I had some speed, like I said, back in Rogers, but this year, all of the off-ice training really helped. I started out the season and I didn't really think much of my speed or anything. I was just kind of out there. But, as the season has gone on, we've done leg training every other day, so I think that's really helped. I guess it's brought out the potential in me.
McKeen's: It also seems like you're very comfortable being out far on your edges.
Jensen: Yeah. I've gotten really comfortable with that. I don't know how to explain it, it's just come to me.
McKeen's: Going back to high school, last year was your junior season, and you were AP All-State Honorable Mention, Star Tribune All-Metro, and, as usual for you, Mississippi 8 All-Conference, third year in a row on that one. With those on the record for McKeen's readers, tell me a bit about 2007-08 and perhaps which award or recognition you're the most proud of.
Jensen: The biggest award, I thought, was the All-Metro Team. The conference that I was in with Rogers wasn't the best. It was, kind of, not the best conference out of Minnesota high school. But, if you make the All-Metro Team, that's many conferences and a bunch of teams. So, I was pretty proud to be in that.
McKeen's: Yeah, if one looks at the All-Metro Team, it reads of guys moving directly to college or skating in this league or other high-level junior leagues. Moving to the team, tell me about the Gamblers' season. It's been fairly successful to this point.
Jensen: Yeah. It's a long season. It was kind of new to me, but you're going to go through little bumps in the road. You're not going to go win every game throughout the season. We've definitely had our bumps in the season, but we've definitely been doing well, too. Definitely better than last year, obviously.
Jensen: We're doing a lot better this year.
McKeen's: Back to high school, prior to your junior season, I saw that you played in the Upper Midwest League.
McKeen's: I believe with Acceleration Minnesota Team Northwest.
McKeen's: Hooray! I misspoke when I talked to Josh Birkholz. I accidentally said Northeast.
Jensen: Yeah, kind of a big rivalry.
McKeen's: (Chuckles) Right. How do you feel that league helped prepare you for your senior year and how did that compare to the high school hockey that you'd played and also to the hockey here in the USHL?
Jensen: Well, the Upper Midwest, the league definitely helped me a lot. I mean, you take all of the best players from all around Minnesota and you put them together and you have a lot of skilled guys. So, it's definitely high-paced. Probably not as high-paced as this league, obviously, but it definitely got me ready for this league and the style of play with all the high speed and the high-skilled players that are in it.
McKeen's: I understand you were a standout football player as well. How did skating in the Elite League affect football?
Jensen: It was exhausting, that's for sure. We never had a day off. It was football all week, game Friday for football, then weekends I would go wherever the Elite League was, and then Monday practice for football came again. So, it was pretty much ongoing. It was definitely exhausting, but I did pretty well in both sports.
McKeen's: Sounds like Mike Lee's schedule, except his involved a little bit more of a drive for Roseau.
Jensen: Yeah (chuckles)
McKeen's: I hate to ever say that people come out of nowhere, because usually behind that is years of preparation, and by the time you get to this league (the USHL), you have to have been a standout player. However, you weren't always at the very top of the list amongst the Minnesota guys, like how some guys are on those lists from their eighth-grade year on forth, and you weren't always named to the Select Festivals and such. But, you seem to have passed some of those guys since. In the past, were you ever concerned that you got passed up for things like that and, if so, why, or why not?
Jensen: You know? If you don't get picked for those (pauses, changes tracks), like I got picked one year, but the other years I made it as far as I could, which was down to like the final 50, and if I didn't make it, I wouldn't feel too bad. I mean, obviously I'd feel like I maybe could have done better. If I didn't make it, my dad would always be there. He was always telling me to "just get working on your game again, it's no big deal, really."
McKeen's: It looked like you did skate at the Select 16 Festival.
Jensen: Yep, in New York.
McKeen's: Going back to your high school career, what were some of your favorite memories in your three seasons, hockey wise?
Jensen: Mostly playing with all the kids I go to school with every day. It was just fun playing with kids that I was good friends with, and all the younger kids or the older kids. So, my biggest memory would probably just be playing with them, no matter how we'd do. It was nice.
McKeen's: I'm glad you've already said what I'm about to say, as it makes it how I've written it here not such a big slam to the Mississippi 8 Conference, but (pauses), you weren't exactly playing Cretin-Derham, or Benilde-St. Margaret's, or White Bear Lake, or Bloomington Jefferson. Instead, you're playing Cambridge-Isanti, Buffalo, Princeton, those sorts of schools. In that conference, were you ever concerned that maybe you wouldn't get scouted as much?
McKeen's: Or be taken as seriously?
Jensen: Definitely. Throughout my high school, I was always thinking about going off to another school, maybe to get in a better, faster conference, or a better team, which is faster. Mississippi 8, being on Rogers definitely helped, obviously just playing hockey, but I definitely thought about moving. Like, I thought about Shattuck St. Mary's and going to that league and stuff.
McKeen's: A little bit of a price increase going from a public school to a private school like Shattuck. I saw that in February that you committed to St. Cloud State, congratulations on that, you certainly seem deserving from what I've seen. At what point did St. Cloud start talking to you and what was the recruiting process like and what made you decide they were the right place?
Jensen: They actually first talked to me my sophomore year in high school. So, that was the first time that I'd ever talked to them. Throughout that time, they talked to me a couple times my junior year. Then, I came to the USHL, they talked to me August or October, sometime around there, and they became really interested in me, watching, because what they were looking for was making that jump from high school up to the USHL. Once I did that, they were like, "Okay." That's what they told me. I was talking to other schools when I was talking to them, and I narrowed it down to being in the WCHA, and I was talking to Alaska-Anchorage, Mankato, and St. Cloud, and decided that Alaska was a little bit to far for me so I decided between St. Cloud and Mankato. So, I went on visits. I liked both of their schools a lot. I guess, it was a close decision, but I guess I decided St. Cloud was better for me.
McKeen's: That'll be a nice easy drive for your parents up I-94 to watch you play. Were there other schools beyond Anchorage and Minnesota State, if I might ask, looking at you?
Jensen: There were others, Eastern schools, like Holy Cross and RPI, and Air Force was talking to me
McKeen's: That'd involve a big commitment.
Jensen: Yeah. Then, after I committed, not everyone knew I was committed yet, so I got calls from the U of M (Minnesota) and UMD (Minnesota-Duluth).
McKeen's: A little late, I guess. Going back to your youth, when did you first start playing, how did you get that start, and then tell me about your father's influence, because I've read that he coached you all the way up and that he's not just another hockey father. If my research is correct, he played four years at Lake Superior State and he was a tenth-round draft pick of the Colorado Rockies (father is Jeff Jensen).
Jensen: Yeah. I started when I was about four, just getting out. I probably couldn't stand on my own skates, but my dad would just get me on the ice whenever he could, but he'd have to just carry me, kind of skating. I remember one big thing that he would do is he would be, I don't want to call it old-man league, but, one of those leagues, and he'd take me out on the ice before warm-ups and wheel me around to kind of get the feel. Then, I started playing in the Elk River hockey association. My dad played, obviously, he went over and played at Lake Superior and got drafted. He always was involved, always being there for me coaching wise. He coached us since mites, squirts (pauses), so my mite team, squirt team, pee wee team, I played Triple-A my bantam year. I wasn't in high school, so I played Triple-A with the Wisconsin Fire. I think it was eighth-grade year, he coached that team. Then, once it became high school time, he let me go there and see what I can do. He was always telling me what I did wrong and did right during the games, telling me after the game. We'd do off-ice training, just me and him, doing plyometric training. So, he's definitely, probably, the biggest reason I am where I am today.
McKeen's: With Elk River, did you skate for them the whole way through?
Jensen: I was at Elk River until my last squirt year, then I went to pee wees in Rogers.
McKeen's: And you had a year in Wisconsin?
Jensen: Yeah, Wisconsin AAA Fire.
McKeen's: Where in Wisconsin are they located?
Jensen: Somerset and Mosinee. I think the limit was you had to have three Wisconsin players on the team so I think that's how many we had on that team. So, we drove about an hour and a half every day to practice.
McKeen's: Sure, a little way across the river. To a different topic, this is your draft year, and you have a legitimate shot of being drafted, showing up some lists. So, do you ever think about the draft and what does that mean to you?
Jensen: Yeah, I definitely think about it, but, I mean, I don't want to get my hopes up or anything. Obviously, the NHL is way up there and it's so hard to get there. Pretty much every hockey player wants to get there. All you can do is just keep working hard. That's all you can pretty much do, give it your all, and just hope.
McKeen's: Do you ever look at the scouting lists and wonder how it is how some of your fellow USHL defensemen, whom I will not name at this time, are ranked ahead of you or not so much?
Jensen: I don't really look at it. Obviously, all of those guys are good players, and I think that, too. So, they deserve to be up there, and I think that as well.
McKeen's: If I were a director of amateur scouting for an NHL team, what are some reasons I should consider drafting Nick Jensen?
Jensen: I work hard, I always give 100 percent, I try to never get down on myself. I think my style of play is fast and what it needs to be for the NHL.
McKeen's: Who were some of your favorite players growing up and why, and you're not that old yet, and who are some players today that you'd like to equate to?
Jensen: In the NHL?
McKeen's: Or maybe other leagues, too, if there's someone particular out there.
Jensen: Well, when I was little, I never really watched any professional teams. Elk River was the only high school around there, we were Elk River hockey. Paul Martin was from there at the time, so I obviously looked up to him, because he was a defenseman and I wanted to be a defenseman, and he was Mr. Hockey, which is always a big deal. That's who I looked up to. Now, I look in the NHL and defensemen (pauses), Nicklas Lidstrom is one of my favorites. He's, well, (pauses)?a very good defenseman. So, I'd like to be like him, sometime.
McKeen's: I think you've already answered this question, but what was your favorite non-NHL team growing up?
Jensen: Elk River. I watched all the games, I went to most of them.
McKeen's: And that was a proximity thing?
Jensen: Yeah, kind of, basically, but they were good back then.