“To have a comeback, you have to have a setback.”
-- Mr. T
When thinking of Michal Kempny, 2018 seems so long ago. A trade deadline pick up in February 2018, from Chicago for a third-round draft pick, the transaction was almost an afterthought, the undercard to bigger things to come… “The 27-year-old Kempny is a rental addition, a pending unrestricted free agent with a $900,000 salary cap hit. Ahead of Washington’s game against the Buffalo Sabres on Monday afternoon, Trotz said General Manager Brian MacLellan could have ‘more under his sleeve.’” But his addition stabilized the defensive pairings, and the rest is history.
Recent history, though, has been unkind to Kempny. The following season he put up fine numbers – 6-19-25, plus-24, in 71 games, and his 2019-2020 regular season numbers (3-15-18, plus-19, in 58 games) were almost as impressive. But then, in the round robin/playoffs, he was 0-1-1, minus-2, into Game 2 of the first round matchup with the New York Islanders when he suffered a torn hamstring that ended his season. He might have returned for the 2020-2021 season, but then he suffered an Achilles tendon injury that required surgery and wiped out his season. It is a lost of rust Kempny will have to scrape off to be effective in 2021-2022.
Odd Kempny Fact… Kempny will enter the 2021-2022 season having gone 58 consecutive games (regular and postseason) without a goal. His last goal – or goals – came on October 25, 2019, when he potted a pair in a 6-5 Gimmick win over the Vancouver Canucks.
Odd Kempny Fact II… Put this one in your pocket for future reference. The last goal Kempny scored on home ice was on Opening Night of the 2019-2020 season…against the New York Rangers. The Caps open their 2021-2022 season at home against the Rangers on October 13th.
Fearless’ Take… The good news here is that Michal Kempny is a 31 year old, with a level of maturity not fund in younger players, with not a lot of mileage on his body (four NHL seasons and 232 regular season games), so a comeback might be easier (which is not to say “easy”) than for a player with more wear and tear on his body. The issue will be how quickly he can re-acclimate himself to NHL-speed in games. But Kempny has been an effective contributor for the Caps in the 151 games he has played for the club so far. It would be premature to write him off if he has a slow start.
Cheerless’ Take… Not one, but two major leg injuries that wiped out the end of a postseason and a full regular season? Low mileage or not, that’s a lot to come back from. Will he need a full season to fully rehabilitate himself and get back to something near 100 percent? Can the Caps afford to accommodate that kind of extended recovery? Just as his arrival stabilized the Caps’ blue line in 2018, the pace of his recovery could destabilize it in 2021-2022.
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021…
- 200 games as a Capital (currently 151)
- 300 career NHL games (232)
- 5,000 career minutes played (4,035)
The Big Question… Is there too much rust on Michal Kempny for him to be an effective player?
Assuming he is in the starting lineup against the New York Rangers on October 13th, it will be 426 days since Kempny played a game that counted, that being August 14, 2020, in a 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference first round matchup that the Caps would go on to lose in five games. That is a lot of time for any player to spend on the shelf in injury rehab, a situation made more challenging for Kempny by virtue of having to rehabilitate two different injuries (torn hamstring, Achilles tendon), more challenging still by virtue of the position he plays, with its emphasis on mobility and skating, and yet again more challenging in that Kempny would likely be, under normal circumstances, part of a top pair (with John Carlson) logging a lot of minutes.
In the end…
Michal Kempny is one of, if not the biggest unknowns for the Caps heading into the regular season. Odd to say about a 31 year old vet, but a 400-plus day hiatus from hockey will do that. The pace of his recovery is likely to dictate how the blue line is managed this season. A sluggish comeback or, worse, a setback, could open up opportunities for youngsters like Martin Fehervary or Alex Alexeyev. Or, it could push a player like Trevor van Riemsdyk into a more prominent role with greater responsibility. Down the road, it could make the Caps a player at the trade deadline in search of a defenseman, although for a team as tight to the salary cap as the Caps are, at least at the moment, it will be a challenge to go that route. It makes Kempny’s comeback story line one of the more important topics to keep track of as the season unfolds.
Projection: 41 games, 3-8-11, plus-1