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Coming into the 2017-18, the biggest weakness for the Capitals was arguably their defensive corps, which suffered the significant losses of stalwarts Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt to free agency and the Expansion Draft, respectively. Despite remaining in playoff contention, General Manager Brian MacLellan made it clear prior to the trade deadline that the team was not going to deal substantial assets for a top-notch blueliner as they had done the previous season in acquiring Kevin Shattenkirk. True to his word, MacLellan added the depth he felt necessary, acquiring Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks and Jakub Jerabek from the Montreal Canadiens. While Jerabek has played sparsely, Kempny has become a top-pairing fixture alongside pending unrestricted free agent John Carlson. And while Carlson will be the team’s top offseason priority, Kempny (also a pending UFA) should be right there with him.
The Capitals acquired Kempny for nothing more than a third-round draft pick, and in 22 regular season games played in a Capitals sweater, Kempny recorded two goals and one assists, with a plus-1 rating playing alongside Carlson. Kempny also blocked 36 shots, and in 13 playoff games, has recorded one goal and one assist, with 27 blocked shots and three takeaways.
As mentioned above, both Carlson and Kempny are pending unrestricted free agents and the former will be the best defenseman on the free agent market by a long shot, having recorded 68 points (15 goals, 33 assists) in 82 games played in 2017-18, while averaging 24:47 of ice time a night for Head Coach Barry Trotz. While Carlson (and the Capitals’) first choice would be to stay in D.C., the Caps’ current salary cap situation (even with the potential rise of the cap) may make re-signing him to the contract he could potentially command (possibly $7-8 million a season) difficult, especially with players such as Tom Wilson, Philipp Grubauer, and Jay Beagle in need of new contracts as well.
While Kempny is likely to ask for a raise over his current $900,000 salary, it is assuredly not going to be as exorbitant as Carlson’s likely asking price. And while the Caps’ other pending free agents (both unrestricted and restricted) should be tended to, allowing Kempny to leave this offseason would weaken the team’s blueline substantially, especially if the team loses Carlson. While he may not put up much offensively, Kempny has provided a steady balance of offensive push and defensive prowess on the back-end, averaging 16:15 of ice time at even-strength, which ranks fourth on the team behind only fellow defensemen Dmitry Orlov, Matt Niskanen, and Carlson. The Capitals entered the season with a much weaker blueline than they had a year before, with rookie blueliners Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey becoming nightly fixtures with the lack of veteran defensemen with NHL experience outside of Carlson, Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Orlov, and at the time, Taylor Chorney.
Kempny’s addition has not only given the Capitals the veteran depth they desired for a playoff run (and an unprecedented deep one at that), but a reliable Top 4 blueliner who makes their defensive corps much deeper than it was earlier in the season. While the Caps’ Stanley Cup hopes are still very much alive, Kempny’s impressive play has made the decision on his future an interesting (but not hard) one for MacLellan. And if Carlson does depart this offseason, Kempny should be next in line for a new deal.
By Michael Fleetwood