The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.
But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.
With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.
The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today, we look at what’s in store for defenseman Michal Kempny as he continues to recover from a torn hamstring sustained in March.
The Capitals best stretch of hockey during the regular season in 2018-19 came to an abrupt end when Michal Kempny fell awkwardly during a scrap with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Cedric Paquette on March 20.
On a 9-2-1 heater since acquiring forward Carl Hagelin and defenseman Nick Jensen a few days before the NHL trade deadline, their depth solidified, the Capitals suddenly lost one of their top pair defensemen. They would spend the rest of the season trying to figure out how to make up for Kempny and never really did.
No one knows how that first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes goes if Kempny is there to play his normal heavy minutes with John Carlson. The Capitals still went 5-3 down the stretch, but there were clear issues on the blueline. A comfort level developed over more than a year was gone.
Jensen was eventually forced to the left side and never looked comfortable there even if in Washington’s system defensemen are asked to switch sides during the flow of a game as a matter of course. But Jensen hadn’t played more than 10 games in that system let alone while trying to make up for Kempny’s absence. It wasn’t THE reason they lose to Carolina, but that injury was one of them.
The issue now: Will Kempny be able to play his critical role again? He had surgery on April 2 to repair the hamstring and was expected to miss four-to-six months. That means his entire summer is about rehabbing the injury and not training for the upcoming season.
Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said on June 20 that Kempny was progressing and they expect to have him at training camp in September, which is now about six weeks away. And Kempny’s own Instagram account showed him running steps at an arena in his native Czech Republic last week.
Those are goods signs. But the Capitals might ease Kempny into things in the preseason. The Oct. 2 opener against defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis will be at the tail end of his recovery period. There’s no reason to push things before then. If he has to play his way back into it, so be it.
Kempny should heal fine given he doesn’t turn 29 until Sept. 8 and few players on the team keep themselves in better condition. He’s been a reliable partner for Carlson since Washington acquired him in February 2018 from Chicago, where he languished as a healthy scratch. Only four Capitals players played more minutes than Kempny last season (1201:46) and he did that in just 71 games.
If prone to taking too many penalties, Kempny transitions the puck well out of the defensive zone and lets Carlson use his skill to take advantage of his offensive opportunities. It didn’t hurt that Kempny added six goals and 19 assists for 25 points of his own. That crushed all of his career highs since joining the Blackhawks during the 2016-17 season. And that came with zero power-play time.
There’s no question the Capitals need Kempny back. The blueline was unbalanced without him and even now they don’t really have experienced depth on that side of the ice the way that they do on the right side. Jonas Siegenthaler, a rookie, eventually joined Carlson on the top pair during the playoffs. He’d have to make a big leap forward to handle the minutes and duties of Kempny or Dmitry Orlov if either is lost to injury again this season.
A steady, big-minutes player who can hold his own at even strength next to Carlson is invaluable. Washington probably doesn’t win the Stanley Cup in 2018 without the Kempny trade. That’s how important he was and is going forward. Now they have to hope the hamstring has healed and Kempny is ready to get back to that role.
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