The 2018-19 NHL season has been one of interest so far for the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals. As the season nears the holiday break, the team has been plagued by a number of injuries to key players, including forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie. On the blueline, veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik has been placed on long-term injured reserve after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and the defensive-pairings have been mixed and matched to make his absence less noticeable. Head Coach Todd Reirden has done an excellent job of keeping things fresh for the Caps’ defensive-pairings and keeping the blueline running strong.
Young defensemen Madison Bowey and Jonas Siegenthaler have been alternating games so each one can gain exposure and continue to grow, while potential (and early) Norris Trophy candidate John Carlson has assumed Orpik’s role of Alternate Captain until the veteran’s return. In the middle of the defensive mixture, Michal Kempny has risen from the ashes of an almost completely withered NHL career that began in Chicago.
Last season, Kempny found his hockey career hanging by a thread when he was told by the Chicago Blackhawks’ management that he was being traded to the Capitals. And when he arrived in DC, he found himself at the start of a rebirth of his career. Shortly after debuting as a member of the Capitals, the team clinched berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Kempny came into his own for the first time late in the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final, becoming the first Washington skater to score a goal in the Eastern Conference Final since 1998 in the process.
But it didn’t stop there, Kempny’s defensive play would come in handy throughout the next two series, as the Capitals defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning, and later, the Vegas Golden Knights to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. But at this point in the 2018-19, with the blueline somewhat in disarray, and the Caps needing all the help they can on the defensive units, Kempny has tapped into yet another level of his game that has helped himself and the team tremendously; and in the process, has put himself in the annals of Washington Capitals history.
On November 17, against his former team, Kempny scored the game-winning goal, which was, by chance, his first goal of the season, and a few days later, on November 23, he scored another game-winner, becoming one of a few defensemen in Capitals history to score game-winning goals in back-to-back games.
Coupling these two goals along with his four assists, Kempny currently has six points on the season, with a plus/minus rating of plus-10 and things are looking up for one of many key contributors to the team’s Cup run this past spring. At a time when one of the Capitals’ most valuable veterans is out long-term, and two young blueliners are continuing to adapt to the NHL game, it is important for veteran players like Kempny, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov to step up their game. Of the players, Kempny has done so the most, both in the defensive zone and while on the attack, and also in creating chances for his teammates to score.
Time is fleeting in the NHL, and while he missed the start of the season with an injury, and spent the first portion of the season drawing careless penalties and struggling to find his game, it seems as though Kempny has finally settled in and is ready to take on a more prominent role for the Capitals. If this trend continues, the team could be looking at more Kempny goals, and even more assists. If the team is lucky, he’ll incorporate Orpik’s brand of play and throw his body in the way of the puck, similar to his defensive play against the Montreal Canadiens at the start of the month.
The stage is set, and the team needs him and Kempny seems to have realized that this is his time to shine. He has gone from a healthy scratch to a pivotal part of a championship-winning team, and should be looking to make a bigger name for himself. Along the way, he’ll hopefully elevate not only his own game, but that of his teammates. With Bowey and Siegenthaler watching and learning from their more experienced teammates, Carlson, Niskanen and Orlov, being moved around in their defensive pairings, it is important to note that not every blueliner will work well together with everyone else, but Kempny seems to blend in well wherever he is placed.
This is exactly what the Capitals were hoping for when they acquired Kempny from Chicago. Rather than trading for a big name defenseman like they had done in recent years (the name Kevin Shattenkirk comes to mind), they seem to have found a diamond in the rough brimming with untapped potential. Michal Kempny needed the Washington Capitals, and the Washington Capitals needed Michal Kempny. As he continues to improve his game, he is sure to not disappoint
By: Chris Laroche