The Capitals kept another pending unrestricted free agent from hitting the open market on July 1 by striking a deal with Kempny, a trade-deadline addition who played a crucial role in the first title in franchise history.
The Capitals dealt a third-round pick to the Chicago Blackhawks in February for Kempny, who played in every playoff game and had two goals with three assists. Kempny’s strong skating complemented Carlson well on a top pairing for Washington — he was often the one going back for pucks, taking some of the burden off Carlson, who could then be more offensive-minded. Kempny’s arrival stabilized a porous blue line to the point that it became a strength for the Capitals in the postseason.
“I thought he was a great player,” Carlson said. “He made a huge impact on our team. When he got here, I thought we kind of started to play our best hockey maybe 10, 15 games after he got here, and then I thought he played awesome in the playoffs. He’s a great player, a great defender and he can skate. So that’s pretty much textbook what you want to have on your team, and certainly, I think we play well together.”
It was a good fit for Kempny, too, which is why the 27-year-old Czech turned down heavy interest from other teams to stay with the Capitals. Kempny had been a healthy scratch for half the season in Chicago, but he praised Washington’s coaching staff for helping his game develop to the point where he was skating an average of 16:45 in the regular season and 17:42 in the playoffs. During his end-of-season interview two weeks ago, Kempny said he “definitely” wanted to return to the Capitals. By then, he and Todd Reirden had already discussed an offseason regimen; Reirden was named Washington’s new head coach on Friday, a few hours after Kempny’s deal became official.
“When I came here, I had really, really great meetings with the coaches,” Kempny said earlier this month. “I sat down with Todd, and he told me about the way we want to go — and we did. The plan [worked] out very well. I can’t be happier. It’s been an amazing three months for me.”
With Kempny’s deal done, the Capitals have checked off their top unrestricted free agent priorities, and the affordable $2.5 million annual price tag leaves the team with roughly $9.7 million in salary-cap space for five players to complete a 23-man roster. Right wing Tom Wilson is a restricted free agent who could sign a long-term deal, but because Washington’s owns the 24-year-old’s negotiating rights, there is less of a rush on that contract. It’s rare for such players not to remain with the team that holds those rights. The Capitals have set repeating as Stanley Cup champions as their goal, and bringing back their top four defensemen as well as their top nine forwards will have them well-positioned to do so.