Michal Kempny arrived in Washington unsure what to do with his furniture, or whether he should get an apartment. He had never been traded, this being just his second season as an NHLer. He acknowledged he would need some time to adjust. He wasn’t a savior or the missing piece for the Capitals, nor was he expected to be. He wasn’t a proven commodity, not even playing much when the Chicago Blackhawks dealt him. But he was Washington’s No. 1 target.
A year after the Capitals made a blockbuster move at the trade deadline by acquiring rental defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, the hottest name available, Washington took the opposite approach. The Capitals traded a 2018 third-round pick to the Blackhawks for Kempny, a 27-year-old with a $900,000 salary cap hit who had been a healthy scratch for half the season on a team out of the playoff race. But one team’s trash can become another team’s treasure: Kempny has played in 21 games for Washington, slotting into the top-four defense corps beside John Carlson and skating 16:46 per game. And the Capitals didn’t have to part with a first-round pick or a top prospect to get him.
Postseason performance will provide the final grade on the team’s additions of Kempny and fellow blue-liner Jakub Jerabek, acquired from Montreal for a 2019 fifth-round pick, but Washington’s defense has gone from allowing 32.5 shots per game before their arrival to 30.4 after. The Capitals have traded for a defenseman before the deadline all four years under General Manager Brian MacLellan, and perhaps this is a lesson that sometimes the best moves don’t have to be splashy.
“The two guys we added here are good fits,” MacLellan said. “In theory, you think they’re all good fits, but these guys came in and did exactly what we thought they were going to do. I mean, you add a guy like Shattenkirk, and it changes the dynamic at the back end. All of a sudden, Carlson’s not on your first power play. It changes the chemistry more so than what we’ve done this year. We had holes to fill this year, and we filled them with guys that aren’t as high-profile but are just steady and provided the things we needed for our team. So it’s worked out.”
As the Capitals played two rookie defensemen, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, for most of the season, it became obvious Washington would look to make changes to its blue line before the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Ottawa superstar Erik Karlsson was reportedly available. The New York Rangers were looking to deal proven top-pairing defenseman Ryan McDonagh. But perhaps the outcome of the Shattenkirk deal lingered for MacLellan as he was considering what to do. While Shattenkirk had good production for the Capitals during the regular season with two goals and 12 assists in 19 games, he was playing in a lesser role than Kempny as a third-pairing defenseman, and he struggled in the playoffs with a minus-4 rating and six points in 13 games.
MacLellan said he thought about adding a “higher-end” blue-liner, but he focused more on the qualities the team needed. Washington wanted someone to play on the left side of Carlson, and with how the Capitals had often struggled to get the puck out of their end, they desired more mobility on defense, especially after the team lost a speedy skater in Nate Schmidt when he was swiped in the Vegas expansion draft.
“Schmidty might be the best skater in the league, but certainly [Kempny is] up there, and he can really wheel around the ice,” Carlson said. “That’s just another thing you kind of have to get a feel for, when his tendencies to [join the attack] are. We both want to get up the ice all of the time, but I think now, we don’t really have to say much to each other. We can just read off each other based off instincts and just seeing plays develop and knowing, ‘Okay, I’ve done this play 20 times now.’ The more you execute those plays, the easier it is to have a read on what each other is doing. I think that’s really developed from the beginning when he first got here.”
MacLellan said the Capitals had Kempny “projected right,” so while he exceeded low external expectations, he has been what the team hoped he would be. But what Washington couldn’t have known about Kempny until he was in its dressing room has been a pleasant surprise. Associate coach Todd Reirden said he’s in “phenomenal shape,” and he’s seen a willingness to learn, with Kempny constantly lurking around his office so they can review video of his shifts. Jerabek hasn’t played as much as Kempny because he and Djoos have alternated in and out of the lineup, but in the 10 games he’s played, Washington is 8-2-0.
“Instead of coming in and having this huge expectation to live up to and they’ve been this and they’ve been that and they’ve played in the league for this long, these are guys we’re still helping to develop as players,” Reirden said. “Not that we weren’t with our other guys, but they’re just at a different phase of development. I think they’ve been really eager.”
Kempny has acquitted himself well enough that MacLellan said re-signing him this summer is a consideration. It seems to have been a good fit for both sides.
“I had a really good feeling about it because I talked with coaches and GM,” Kempny said. “We had a pretty good talk, and I felt pretty good about it. You know, I made a couple of mistakes and a couple of bad things in my play, but I was still in the lineup. That’s pretty good for me because in Chicago, when I make mistakes, I was out of the lineup. Now, in Washington, I still play. That’s the things which help me, and because of that, I feel pretty good.”