Sharks pure project pick Jensen taking shape

By Kevin Wey

Before the NHL reduced the draft from nine rounds to seven, it wasn’t uncommon to see teams gamble with project players in the ninth round of the draft. San Jose was known for taking late round project players, such as Doug Murray, and having those prospects pay off. The Sharks even surprised the world by drafting Germans with their first three picks in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, so it was hard for San Jose to surprise the hockey world at the draft table, but they did just that with the 289th pick of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft: Christian Jensen, of the New Jersey Jr. Titans, of the Atlantic Junior Hockey League.

Not only was Jensen drafted from a then obscure, first-year junior league, he had only played organized hockey for three years, and was actually more of a roller hockey player.

“In roller hockey, I played in my neighbor’s back yard all the time,” Jensen recalled in an interview with Hockey’s Future. “Every now and then in the winter we’d freeze his driveway over and play a little ice.

“And then four years ago I was kind of bored with roller hockey, so I decided I’d try ice.”

He didn’t begin as hockey’s version of Roy Hobbs, in fact, Jensen said he was “pretty bad at it at first.”

-serif” size=”2″>Jensen joined the Chimney Rock Predators, a midget major A team, the first day of their season his sophomore year in high school. He had some driveway and house league experience, but that was it. The next year he played Midget Minor AA hockey for Brick and continued to improve, to the point where he and his parents began looking for junior teams in the area that the young Jensen could play on and improve his game further.

Enter the New Jersey Jr. Titans.

The Titans were operating at the time out of the Pro-Skate Arena in South Bronx, New Jersey, where tryouts were being held for a New Jersey team to play in the Beantown Classic midget tournament. Head coach Randy Walker saw Jensen at the tryout and offered him a contract with the Junior Titans, and Jensen accepted. He would play the 2003-04 season, his first season of junior hockey, with the Jr. Titans in the brand new Atlantic Junior Hockey League, considered a Junior Elite league. Jensen felt lucky just to be playing any junior hockey.

“I don’t think I had the skill to make the team, but they saw some potential, I guess, and I fit in and got lucky.”

The transition from Atlantic area midget hockey to junior hockey for Jensen, in only his third year of organized hockey, proved a challenge.

“It was tough going from Midget Minor to Junior Elite, it was real tough,” Jensen said. “The traveling, the constant grind of the season, the physical play was probably the biggest challenge, and you had to be quick, otherwise you were going to get clocked.”

However, the green blueliner managed to adjust and earned AJHL Rookie of the Year honors. He had scored 8 goals and added 21 assists in 48 AJHL games for the Jr. Titans and provided the team with a big defenseman. Little did the blueliner know that something teal was afoot, but his coach knew.

“San Jose had contacted me a couple months prior to the draft to tell me their interest,” Walker said.

An NHL team interested in an AJHL player?

After playing in the Chicago Showcase for Team New Jersey, Jensen was asked to fill out a form to opt into the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, no longer necessary in the new collective bargaining agreement. That was Jensen’s first hint that something was up, but he didn’t know the Sharks had talked to Walker, or even to his parents.

“We were pleasantly surprised and excited,” Walker said. “We were hoping that they didn’t change their mind from April to June, and ultimately it happened.”

San Jose indeed took the 18-year-old, with the third-to-last pick in the NHL Draft. Jensen found out he’d been drafted after he checked the Internet after receiving a voicemail message on his cell phone from a friend congratulating him.

“It was unbelievable,” Jensen said. “I didn’t even know what to do, you know, it’s the NHL, and the Sharks are a great organization.

“I can’t even explain it.”

Just as suddenly as Jensen’s hard work had been rewarded, so too had the work of the New Jersey Jr. Titans been rewarded.

“I think for our organization, it just justified, in our mind, having a Tier I organization and the expense of a junior program traveling up and down the East Coast and into Canada,” Walker said. “It justified us going to all of these New England tournaments, and Canadian tournaments, and upstate New York, where we could expose our kids to the highest level.”

The Jr. Titan defenseman’s drafting also put the AJHL on the map.

“For the newly formed Junior Elite league, it put us on the map,” Walker said. “We always felt we were achieving the status of the EJHL and moving up into having our guys be scouted and recognized by the USHL, the NAHL, and the best Tier I leagues like that.

“It proved to us that what we were doing in this area was the right thing.”

Over the course of the 2003-04 season Jensen had improved his first pass, his skating, his mobility and his defensive awareness with the Jr. Titans. He became very effective in the corners and down low. The 6’3 defenseman had good size and mobility, but his primary strength was probably his character. Walker thinks it may have been the primary reason Jensen was drafted by San Jose.

“He was always driven,” Walker said. “He was the first guy in the weight room, last one out, always did his dry land, never missed a practice.

“He was a poster boy for the kind of student-athlete you want to have come through your program.”

Jensen’s selection helped make him the perfect role model for other players in the Jr. Titans organization.

“Here it was we had a kid who was big and mobile, a good student, and a good kid off the ice,” Walker said. “That’s the kind of kid you want to have make it, because he sets an example for the other guys coming in, not only on your team but in your midget programs that are coming up.”

As quickly as he had developed to reach the AJHL, he left, this time for the Eastern Junior Hockey League expansion team New Jersey Hitmen. Hitmen head coach Jim Hunt recognized Jensen’s character right away.

“He’s honest, he comes to work every day, never looks to take shortcuts, always wants to understand the whys, and when you ask him to do something, he’ll execute it, but he wants to understand all of the nuances of the game,” Hunt said. “He’s a very coachable kid, his character is one of the great assets of his game.”

Hunt also recognized Jensen needed to improve to become an EJHL contributor.

“I think his decision-making process needed to speed up, and part of that came with learning the game and learning what his personality was and what he was good at,” Hunt said. “His decision-making with the puck was probably the biggest thing he had to adjust to when he came to the Junior A level.”

The rookie EJHLer did improve as the season went on, but he only managed 1 goal and 9 assists in 48 games for the New Jersey Hitmen. Although he did not discover the net, the 19-year-old did discover his identity as a defenseman.

“He kind of came in without a real consistent identity as a player, and he developed that and he kind of found what he was good at and built around that,” Hunt said.

What Jensen discovered was that he was not going to be the next Scott Niedermayer, in New Jersey terms, but instead more of a Colin White.

“He can make the first outlet pass, avoids turnovers, he’s strong along the walls, does not lose defensive positioning in one-on-one battles, and he’s got great wingspan,” Hunt said, and then added, “He’s got a good strong stick and he’s got a good work ethic, he’ll block shots, that’s going to be his forte as he moves on.”

Even though he was not a dominant defenseman at the EJHL level, Jensen moved up to the USHL this season with the Waterloo Blackhawks. The Blackhawks learned late in the summer that they were losing defenseman Creighton Scarpone to Quinnipiac, so the 2004 USHL Clark Cup champions were left scrambling to complete their defensive corps. On the recommendation of a Shark scout and after training camp, Waterloo general manager and head coach P.K. O’Handley signed the Shark prospect.

Still on his learning curve, and far less experienced than most other USHLers, Jensen occasionally found himself as a scratch for Waterloo, but O’Handley was still happy with his defenseman when Hockey’s Future interviewed him in November.

“He doesn’t do anything poor, he has some offensive ability, but he’s just a real simple defenseman, which, if you look at a potential National Hockey League player, that’s attractive,” O’Handley said.

The Blackhawks coach did want to see the 6’3 200-pounder play with more aggression.

“He’s got to develop more of a mean streak, play with an edge all of the time,” O’Handley said.

Polite in person, Jensen’s off-ice demeanor carried over to his on-ice play too much and the Blackhawks released him in December, in favor of the physical Dustin Molle, who was returning the Waterloo after playing only three games for the University of Alaska-Anchorage the fall semester.

The release was the first real setback of Jensen’s young career, but he immediately went about finding a new team and called other USHL teams and also teams in the Central Junior Hockey League in Ontario. The Chicago Steel had just lost defenseman Doug Wilson, so they added the big, mobile defensive defenseman to their roster.

“It always stinks when you get released from a team,” Jensen said before his first game with the Steel. “It was terrible news, Waterloo was a great place to play, I loved everybody there, but it opened a door for me here.”

Jensen then flashed a bit of the aggressiveness O’Handley wished he could have consistently seen on the ice.

“I’m loving everything here, it couldn’t be better,” Jensen said, then quickly added, “I’m glad I’m here.”

After five games with the Steel Jensen has an assist and is a +1. In his 17 games with the Blackhawks, he had 1 goal and 4 assists.

Normally a 20-year-old playing a USHL team’s third pairing, who has also been released midseason, has reason for concern, but not Jensen. He’s always improved just enough to make it to the next level the following year, even though he didn’t establish himself as a top player in the previous level. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s already committed to Rensselaer for 2006-07 and beyond.

“RPI is a great school academically, right below Ivy League schools,” said the future Engineer. “They’re only returning three defensemen next year.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to step in and maybe play some big minutes as a freshman.”

Jensen also picked RPI because it was only three hours away from his parents, whom he credits his upbringing for his success academically and in hockey.

“My dad and mom really raised me top notch,” Jensen said. “I owe everything to them.”

In four years Jensen has gone from playing his first organized hockey, to the AJHL, to the EJHL, to the USHL. RPI will be the first team in Jensen’s career where he’ll be able to establish some roots and play for a while, four seasons if all goes as expected.

Few players who start hockey so late progress so quickly and give little indication on the ice that they have not been playing organized hockey when they were atoms and mites, like most of Jensen’s teammates in the USHL. He is a ninth-round pick to the ninth degree, a ninth-round draft day surprise, a project player drafted entirely on upside, who’s starting to take shape.

Jensen’s Jr. Titans coach may have the best analysis of underdog prospect’s potential.

“He’s a late-round pick, the odds are slim that he’s ever going to play an NHL game, but if he improves in the next four yeas the way he improved in the last four, he’s got a shot to at least play some pro hockey.”

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.