After two major injuries, a freak accident with an ice scraper, playing in the pandemic and getting sent to the AHL, you could understand if Michal Kempny felt bitter about how the last few years have gone for him. But that's not who he is. Instead, as Kempny was recalled on Monday to the NHL for the first time this season, he was incredibly thankful both for the opportunity to be with the Capitals again, but also for his time with the Hershey Bears.
"I didn't expect to play in AHL," Kempny said. "But I got sent down there and I got to say that they have a really, really good, group and the coaches, the trainers and it's been really good down there and I really enjoyed the time down there. It really helped me a lot to kind of build my confidence back up and so we'll see what's gonna happen right now."
Kempny was a top-pair defenseman for Washington in their 2018 Stanley Cup championship run. The following season he suffered a torn hamstring that kept him out of the 2019 postseason. The following season, he never looked quite right in his return. The COVID pause offered him more time to recover, but he again struggled in the 2020 postseason. A torn Achilles then kept him out of the 2021 season. He did manage to play two games with Hershey, but a collision with an ice scraper led to another injury that ended his season.
Kempny returned to the Caps for the 2021 preseason, but struggled and was ultimately reassigned to Hershey.
"I didn't feel like I was bad or something like that but obviously there was other guys, which they play well, so the situation you know worked out."
On the final year of his contract, it was fair to wonder if those preseason games were the last time we would see Kempny in a Caps uniform.
Kempny was understandably disappointed, but playing in Hershey ultimately helped him adjust back to game speed. Knowing this has allowed Kempny to have a positive perspective on his time in the AHL when other players in his position would have resented what they felt was a demotion.
"When I started to play, everything felt kind of too fast for me," Kempny said. "As a defenseman, you've got to shoulder checks everywhere. You have to know where to pass the puck before you get to the puck. It's just, from the start, everything was kind of too fast for me. Right now, I feel like the game kind of slow down for me. I was dealing with the breakouts, with everything each night. I was averaging probably, 25, 26 minutes every game. It's been great. I really appreciate the time I got down there."
Kempny was recalled to the NHL roster on Monday. WIth Martin Fehervary, Justin Schultz, Nick Jensen and Dennis Cholowski all in COVID-19 protocol, Kempny could very well play as early as Wednesday against the Nashville Predators. He even took line rushes on the second pair in Monday's practice with Trevor van Riemsdyk.
"He's got a lot of experience, and he was playing well: a great opportunity for him," head coach Peter Laviolette said.
"It's great to see him," John Carlson said, who played as Kempny's primary partner on the top pair before the injuries. "Haven't seen him in a while. Glad to see he looks great and having fun playing the game again."
Kempny has played a sizable role in Hershey where he was paired primarily with Cody Franson and Bobby Nardella. He has seen a lot of penalty kill time and also said that his previously injured leg has been moving well.
The COVID absences present Kempny with an opportunity, but the fact is there remains little room for him in the lineup if and when the blue line returns to full strength.
Fehervary has thrived in his rookie season taking on a top-pair role. Behind him on the left side is Dmitry Orlov and the right-shooting van Riemsdyk who is constantly praised for his play by Laviolette. Behind them is also Matt Irwin and Dennis Cholowski, both left-shooting defensemen who the team has thought enough of to not risk placing on waivers to send to Hershey.
Kempny knows sticking around is a long shot, but he is still approaching his return to the NHL with the same positive attitude he has carried with him through so many of his recent trials.
"Obviously I have the mindset that I don't want to end up [in the AHL the] whole season," Kempny said. "I just try to be positive every day, to work hard, that everything's going to turn out well for me. Right now I'm here and we'll see what's going to happen. I'm going to enjoy every day to be here. I'm not going to say what's going to happen in the future. I don't know. I'm trying to be in the present and we'll see."