After the Washington Capitals re-signed defenseman Brenden Dillon to a four-year contract before he could have hit the unrestricted free agent market, the team has four left-handed defensemen on one-way contracts: Dillon, Dmitry Orlov, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Michal Kempny. In addition, they have a prospect in Martin Fehervary who appears to be in the mix for some playing time as soon as this season after impressing when given the chance in the regular season and getting an extensive look in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he played two games.
Kempny will not return until sometime between April and June 2021 after undergoing surgery on his Achilles tendon on October 6, meaning they will have to make a decision when he is ready with four left-handed defensemen on one-way contracts and Fehervary waiting in the wings for playing time.
When the Capitals acquired Dillon from the San Jose Sharks on February 18, he took Kempny’s spot on the top-pair with Norris Trophy runner-up John Carlson while Kempny moved down to a pairing with Siegenthaler, where he struggled. The Capitals even scratched Kempny for arguably the biggest game of the regular season on March 4 against the Philadelphia Flyers. All of these factors and the re-signing of Dillon has got to make one wonder what it means for Kempny when he returns.
In addition, Kempny was scratched for the final three games of the first round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a further indication of how the Capitals viewed him before he tore his Achilles tendon.
Despite leading the Capitals with a +19 rating last season, the 30-year-old recorded a 50.35% Corsi-for percentage, which was only better than Siegenthaler’s 50.14% among Capitals’ left-handed defenseman, and a 49.54% expected goals-for percentage, which was the worst among all Capitals’ defenseman who played at least seven games, at five-on-five. His 50.2% shot-attempts for percentage was only better than Siegenthaler’s 50%.
After the Capitals acquired him from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for just a third-round pick on February 19, 2018, Kempny turned from a regular healthy scratch to a top-pairing defenseman, averaging 17:42 per game (fourth among Capitals’ defenseman) and helped the team win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 2018. The Capitals re-signed him to a four-year contract that carries a cap hit of $2.5 million just days before he was eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018. Kempny enjoyed a career season in 2018-19 where he posted six goals, 25 points, and a team-high +24 rating in 71 games before tearing his hamstring in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 20, 2019, and would not return until nine games into the 2019-20 campaign. The Capitals missed his presence during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as they averaged 3.00 goals-against per game in a seven-game first-round exit.
When Kempny is healthy enough to return, he could be sent down to the AHL’s Hershey Bears for a conditioning stint before the Capitals work their way into getting him some time on the big squad.
The Capitals are also nearing the light at the end of the tunnel on their Stanley Cup window as they have 12 players on the roster this season that are at least 30-years-old. Perhaps moving one and injecting a little more youth is not a bad idea to further extend that window.
The NHL could allow for more players on rosters due to a compressed schedule for this upcoming season. However, the Capitals already have nine other options if you include Fehervary as part of the mix. The Capitals will already likely have to trade a right-handed defenseman before the season starts as they currently have five on the roster.
Another key factor is going to be the salary cap. With the Capitals having some major contract decisions looming and around $1.2 million over the NHL salary cap, they will have to shed some money. For a player that has missed as much time as Kempny will have missed over the past couple of seasons, it might make sense to shed his $2.5 million cap hit if it turns out that he does not crack the top-six.
After acquiring and re-signing Dillon in addition to scratching Kempny for the majority of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Capitals have clearly expressed how they view Kempny. With not a lot of room available on the left side of the Capitals’ defense, it is fair to question Kempny’s future in Washington. While trading him would sound like it makes sense, the fact that he has undergone two major procedures in less than two years means that the team would almost certainly not get fair market value for him. With the Capitals in need of salary cap space and possession of some spare defenseman, they will need to figure out what to do with Kempny. Fortunately, that is a decision for another day but it is fair to question his role in Washington when he is finally ready to go.
By Harrison Brown