Sunday, September 22, 2019

Washington Capitals 2019-2020 Previews -- Defensemen: Michal Kempny

Michal Kempny

“The way to resumption is to resume.”
-- Salmon P. Chase

It was all coming together.  Michal Kempny was traded from the Chicago Blackhawks, where he seemed buried on the depth chart, to the Washington Capitals, where his insertion into the defenseman mix settled what was a troubled matter for much of the 2017-2018 season.  With the pieces in place after Kempny’s arrival, the Capitals marched through the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup.  Kempny’s numbers did not jump off the page, but they were solid. 

Those numbers got better in the 2018-2019 season for Kempny.  He started the season slowly with just one point in his first nine games and two points over his first 16 contests.  But starting with a four-game points streak in late November, Kempny went 6-17-23, plus-20, over his next 55 games.  And then, it blew up.  Kempny suffered a hamstring injury in an overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 20th that would require surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation.  His season was over, and the depth on defense that had been cultivated by the Caps’ front office over the preceding 13 months was reduced once more.  One could not help but think it was an important factor in the Caps’ first round playoff loss to Carolina.

Kempny’s presence in the lineup, particularly in his 55-game run of good numbers, mattered.  Over that span the Caps were 34-16-5, the third best record in the league over that span, trailing only Tampa Bay (43-8-3) and Calgary (34-13-6).  The team’s possession numbers, while not especially impressive (49.63 percent shot attempts-for at 5-on-5), were respectable, ranked 14th over that period, compared to their 18th-ranked numbers overall for the season (49.04 percent).

Odd Kempny Fact…

If you want to know how complicated NHL transaction management can be, consider Michal Kempny and how he came to be in Washington, and what transpired after.  It started with a third-round draft pick in the 2018 entry draft.  It was the property of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but…
  • The Maple Leafs had to compensate the New Jersey Devils for signing Lou Lamoriello as general manager.  The compensation was a third round draft pick in either the 2016, 2017 or 2018 NHL Entry Draft.  
  • The Devils did not exercise the pick in 2016 or 2017 and traded the 2018 pick to the Capitals, along with a second round pick in the 2018 Entry Draft, for Marcus Johansson.
  • The Caps included the 2018 third round pick…sort of…in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks that brought Michal Kempny to Washington.  The pick was conditional, the Blackhawks receiving the higher of Washington's own third-round pick or that third-round pick that Toronto originally owned and that was obtained from New Jersey.
  • When Toronto was eliminated from the 2018 playoffs in April 2008, the provision granting the Blackhawks the original Toronto pick was activated.
  • In June 2018, Chicago traded the pick to the Arizona Coyotes along with a fifth-round pick (that one originally held by the Columbus Blue Jackets…another story) for a third round pick (originally held by Calgary…still another story)
  • Arizona flipped the third round pick to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a fourth and a fifth round pick in the 2018 draft.
  • San Jose selected center Linus Karlsson with the pick.  He has yet to play a game in North America.

So…a third round pick takes a journey from Toronto to New Jersey to Washington to Chicago to Arizona to San Jose.  Michal Kempny, on the other hand, found a home.

Bonus Odd Kempny Fact…

In 2018-2019, Michal Kempny scored more goals (six), recorded more assists (19), posted more points (25), put up a better plus-minus (plus-24) in 71 games than he had over his 103 previous games in the NHL (5-13-18, plus-15).

Fearless’ Take…

Numbers inform, but results count.  That said, in a season and change with the Capitals, the team is 73-37-7 in regular season and playoff games with Michal Kempny in the lineup, 9-8-1 when he is absent.   Part of it is his offensive contributions; the Caps are 25-8-2, regular and postseason, when he posted a point.  However, they are also a respectable 48-29-5 in games in which he did not record a point.  His individual possession numbers have been good since he arrived (50.09 percent shot attempts-for on ice at 5-on-5 in the regular season), but not extraordinary; they are third among Caps defensemen playing in at least 50 games since he came to the club last season.  Whatever his own numbers, he does seem to have had a reverse-ripple effect on the defense.  His arrival allowed other pairs to settle, becoming more consistent, more predictable, and more consistent.

Cheerless’ Take…

Last season was the first one in a three-year NHL career, that started at age 26 mind you, in which Michal Kempny skated more than 55 games.  Yes, it was a fine season until he got hurt.  But now, we’re left with unknowns.  Can he come back 100 percent from surgery on his hamstring.  Will he be able to do so at the start of the season?  If the answer to either of the first two questions are “yes,” will last year prove to be an indicator of his expected level of performance, or was it an outlier, a spike, a one-off from which he will descend into a more disappointing profile?

Potential Milestones:
  • 200 career NHL games played (174; he needs 26)
  • 100 games played as a Capital (93; he needs seven)
  • 100 penalty minutes as a Capital (74; he needs 26)
  • Top-50 among defensemen in games played as a Capital (93; he needs 27 to tie Jason Doig (120))
  • Top-50 among defensemen in points as a Capital (28; he needs two to tie Bryan Watson (30))

The Big Question… Was Michal Kempny’s 2018-2019 level of production a floor or a ceiling?

After a slow start last season, Michal Kempny found himself on a pace to hit the 30 point mark from the blue line for the Caps before his season was cut short by injury.  Had he done so, he would have been only the sixth defenseman to reach 30 points for the Caps since the 2005-2006 season.  Little in Kempny’s history would indicate such a level of production as a common occurrence.  He totaled only 15 points in 81 games with the Chicago Blackhawks.  In his one season in the KHL, with Omsk Avangard in 2015-2016, he was 5-16-21 in 59 games.  He did not hit the 30-point mark in five seasons with Brno Kometa in the Czech Republic, although scoring standards in Europe might be somewhat different than in North America.

Perhaps it is a case of circumstance, a player finding a team, a scheme, and a partner (primarily John Carlson) that allows otherwise hidden parts of his game to emerge and flourish.  The encouraging part about pondering this question is that last year was an extension of Kempny’s performance at the end of the 2017-2018 season, especially late and in the playoffs in 2018.  Sometimes, a change of scenery does wonders for a player stuck in the organizational mud with another franchise. 

In the end…

Back when there were “record stores,” there were clearance bins with old vinyl discs that weren’t in demand by artists few heard of.  But every once in a while, a gem could be found in the clearance bin.  Maybe not a classic, but something that just wasn’t played often enough to reach the level of appreciation it deserved.  Such might be the case with Michal Kempny who, in two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, was dead last in average ice time (15:06 per game) among the 16 defensemen to dress for the team over those two years.  That he would be let go for a conditional third round draft pick was sufficient indication that he was not really ever in the club’s plans.  Their loss.

Kempny has been, so far, the sort of defenseman whose numbers might be replaceable, to a point, but who’s intangible ability to settle the rest of the defensive squad with his presence in the lineup has been one of the most important, and perhaps underrated elements of the Caps’ success over the last 100 regular season games.  His absence in the playoffs last spring just seem to underline that thought.  If he can pick up where he left off, the Caps might be able to resume deep playoff runs.

Projection: 70 games, 7-20-27, plus-18

Photo: Will Newton/Getty Images North America