“Life can surprise you.”
-- Gary Bettman
A hockey season has its ebbs and flows, its routines and its mileposts that mark important times and dates in the season. One of the most eagerly anticipated dates on the hockey season calendar is the trading deadline. With great anticipation, fans, pundits, and even players weigh in on how things might unfold and who might be sent where. Most of the anticipation and the attention focus on big names.
Sometimes, though, the most meaningful transactions are lost in the hype. Consider February 19, 2018. Two trades took place on that date. One involved a playoff hopeful trading to bolster the most important position on the ice, the Philadelphia Flyers sending two conditional draft picks to the Detroit Red Wings for goaltender Petr Mrazek. In the “and in other news” category, the Washington Capitals obtained defenseman Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks for a 2018 third round draft pick.
It was the second straight season in which the Capitals traded for a defenseman at or near the trade deadline. In February 2017, the Caps dealt two players and two draft picks for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and goalie Pheonix Copley, thinking that Shattenkirk – largely thought of as the prize among available players at the deadline – would be the last piece to the puzzle of how to win a Stanley Cup. It took a second bite at that apple for that to work (the Caps took another bite of the apple two days after the Kempny deal, trading a fifth round draft pick to the Montreal Canadiens for Jakub Jerebek). But who knew it would work with a trade for a defenseman in his second year in the NHL at the age of 27 with just 81 games of experience?
Kempny ended up being the solution to more than one problem. The Caps were not getting it done, or at least not looking like a likely deep-run playoff team with two rookie defensemen (Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey) getting regular turns in the lineup. Whether they were paired together, or they were partnered with John Carlson (Djoos) and Brooks Orpik (Bowey), it wasn’t working at a high enough level. They had one solid pair – Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov – and two that just didn’t seem to click.
Enter Kempny. Pairing him with John Carlson on the second pair allowed head coach Barry Trotz to pair a conventional offensive defenseman in Christian Djoos with a conventional defensive defenseman in Brooks Orpik. Uncertainty about the blue line’s ability to stand up when the pressure was greatest melted away. Not that Kempny’s numbers popped off the page. He was 2-1-3, plus-1, in 22 regular season games and 2-3-5, plus-1, in 24 playoff contests, but his presence settled the defense and made it an effective complement to the strong forwards lines that the Caps took into the postseason and to a Stanley Cup.
Odd Kempny Fact…
The Caps’ Stanley Cup win makes Michal Kempny an oddity among defensemen in franchise history. He is the only defenseman in Caps history to appear in fewer than 25 regular season games (22) and more than 20 playoff games (24) in a single season.
I think the term my esteemed cousin is searching for in describing Kempny’s effect on the team is a “burr puzzle.” It is a kind of a wood puzzle that often contains three sets of rod pairs that have to interlock to form a burr seed-shaped or other symmetrical solution. Such a puzzle has 5 pieces and 1 “key” piece. Kempny might have been just that piece. It took a little time for the pieces to resolve themselves, the Caps going 3-4-0 in his first seven games with the club and his personal numbers being 0-0-0, minus-4. But after that, Kempny went 2-1-3, plus-5, in 15 games, and the Caps went 12-3-0. And, more Kempny was a good thing. The Caps went 14-5-0 in the 19 games in which he skated at least 15 minutes in ice time.
OK, it worked. But was that a sign of the Caps unleashing the true inner Kempny, or was that just the fickle finger of fate (what, you kids never heard of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In?”)? Let’s just keep in mind that he was never drafted, didn’t sign an NHL contract until he was 25 years old, has Karl Alzner-esque career offensive numbers (5-13-18 in 103 games with the Caps and the Chicago Blackhawks), had his worst personal possession numbers as a Cap (48.01 percent shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 versus 55.45 percent in 81 games with Chicago; source: NHL.com), and has a pretty ugly career takeaway-to-giveaway ratio (15 takeaways, 67 giveaways). His 103 games in the NHL is his entire body of work in hockey in North America, having played entirely in Europe before signed by the Blackhawks in May 2016.
The Big Question… Will “Mr. Kempny Goes to Washington” have a long run?”
Numbers don’t lie, and Michal Kempny’s were not especially impressive, but sometimes one has to put some trust in what you see and what others see. When Michal Kempny was approaching unrestricted free agency last June, his defensive partner John Carlson had this to say about him…
"I thought he was a great player. 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."
Kempny, who was an irregular starter in Chicago, had this to say about the effect his coaches in Washington had on his play…
“When I came here, I had really, really great meetings with the coaches. I sat down with Todd [Reirden], 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.”
As an observational matter, there seems to be the sort of fit among player, playing partner, and coaches (especially Reirden, who takes over as head coach) that will reveal more of Kempny’s potential as a player than what he displayed in Chicago. The team certainly thinks so, having signed him to a four-year/$10 million contract. It is a front-loaded contract that pays out $6 million of the $10 million over the first two years of the deal, but the $2.5 million cap hit is in the same neighborhood of defensemen that includes Ryan Ellis, Thomas Hickey, Patrik Nemeth, Brayden McNabb, and Kevan Miller (all with a $2.5 million cap hit; source: capfriendly.com). Whether that is a bargain or not is uncertain, but the Caps are giving Kempny the wherewithal to make this a long run.
In the end…
On a “value-to-hype” basis (contributions to the club versus the attention paid at the time), the trade of a third round draft pick for Michal Kempny might be the most consequential in the history of the franchise. The Rod Langway trade was more important to the club, and the Jaromir Jagr deal was bigger, but both of those were blockbuster trades. The Kempny deal flew so far under the radar at the time, you needed a coal miner’s lamp helmet to see it. But it solved the most obvious weakness that the Caps had as they were approaching the playoffs, the lack of confidence that they had three solid defensive pairs. Maybe it was just one moment in time in which everything came together, or maybe it’s the start of a beautiful relationship. Either way, it was quite a surprise that Michal Kempny would figure so large in the fortunes of the Capitals in 2018, and it was the kind of season that fosters hope that the show will keep running for years to come.
Projection: 77 games, 4-7-11, plus-3
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images North America