Photo: Sporting News
When the Washington Capitals acquired defenseman Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a third-round pick in the upcoming draft on February 19, 2018, it was considered a minor move around the NHL.
The 28-year old defenseman had played just 31 of the Blackhawks’ 59 games (52.5%) up to that point when the trade was announced despite leading the team with a +13 rating during the 2017-18 season. Head coach Joel Quenneville did not show much confidence in Kempny as he finished the season with an average 15:19 worth of ice-time per game, the lowest among a relatively thin Blackhawks defensive group.
Kempny was contemplating about going back to the Czech Republic, his home country, because his time in Chicago was going poorly as was the Blackhawks’ season. They were 1-7-1 in the final nine games of Kempny’s tenure there and were sitting eight points back of the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild-card in the Western Conference at the time of the trade.
Then Capitals head coach Barry Trotz started taking baby steps with Kempny, scratching him in the first game that he was available to the team before putting him on the third defensive-pair with veteran Brooks Orpik in his first two games and trying him on the top-pair with defenseman John Carlson, who led all NHL defenseman with 68 points during the regular season in 2017-18.
After an adjustment period and working with then associate coach Todd Reirden, Kempny began to find a home for him. He posted 36 hits, four takeaways, and averaged 1.2 hits per game while averaging 16:45 worth of ice-time per game with the Capitals to finish 2017-18. He even doubled the total goal output that he tallied with Chicago in nine fewer games with the Capitals.
Kempny played a huge role in the team’s Stanley Cup victory in 2018 and improved from his time from the regular season as a Capital. He earned even more responsibility as his average ice-time climbed by 57 seconds from the time that he was with the Capitals during the regular season. He appeared in all of the team’s 24 Stanley Cup Playoff games after serving as a healthy scratch for a handful of games with the Blackhawks. He posted two goals, five points, and a +1 rating in the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run. His 44 blocked shots during the Stanley Cup Playoffs were the third-most on the Capitals. He was also credited with five takeaways and 31 hits while riding shotgun with Carlson on the top-pair.
After Carlson re-signed with the Capitals, he said that he wanted Kempny back with the team in 2018-19 as he was set to become an unrestricted free agent the next week. The Capitals announced that they re-signed Kempny to a four-year, $10 million contract ($2.5 million AAV) just two days before he was set to hit the open market.
Kempny was arguably better this past season than he was the one prior as his +24 rating led the Capitals and was among the league’s top-20 in that category. He recorded 21 takeaways, though his 47 giveaways were the ninth-most on the team. His 135 blocked shots were the third-most and 84 hits were ninth in the team rankings, respectively. Kempny’s ice-time also continued to grow as his average ice-time of 19:11 per game was the sixth-highest on the Capitals and he was tasked with playing against opposition’s top players. In addition, Reirden gave him more responsibility on the penalty-kill as Kempny averaged 1:39 worth of ice-time per game while shorthanded after he averaged just 14 seconds on the penalty kill in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Kempny even improved offensively as he set career-highs with six goals, 19 assists, 25 points, and 111 shots, respectively, this past season.
Unfortunately for Kempny and the Capitals, his season came to an end when Tampa Bay Lightning forward Cedric Paquette hit him during a scrum in the team’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Lightning on March 20. He was diagnosed with a torn hamstring, which required surgery.
Without Kempny, the Capitals’ defense was not the same. Nick Jensen, who was acquired in a trade with the Detroit Red Wings on February 22 and averaged 20:48 worth of ice-time in Motown, was given a chance on the top-pair with Carlson but failed to impress. Christian Djoos was given the first crack to step into Kempny’s role but his time on the top-pair did not last long.
While the Capitals gave up only 18 goals in their final eight games of the regular season (an average of 2.25 per game) without Kempny, they struggled defensively in their First Round series against the Carolina Hurricanes. Despite recording an efficiency of 88% on the penalty-kill, the Capitals allowed an average of 3.00 goals per game, including nine goals in the final two games of the series, and 33.4 shots per game. At times, it was apparent that the Capitals missed Kempny.
After getting limited ice-time and struggling under Quenneville with the Blackhawks, Kempny has earned a lot of trust and thrived under Reirden with the Capitals. When he was out due to injury in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it left a glaring hole on the Capitals’ defense that his team was unable to overcome. With Kempny expected to be healthy come training camp in September and be ready to play a top-four role once again, the Capitals’ defense should get a big boost after coming up short against the Hurricanes.
By Harrison Brown