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How a minor trade for an unknown defenseman proved to be the biggest move of the 2018 NHL trade deadline

How a minor trade for an unknown defenseman proved to be the biggest move of the 2018 NHL trade deadline

As the dust settled after the 2018 NHL trade deadline, there were a number of key moves made to change the landscape of the league and the Stanley Cup race. The biggest move made was by the Tampa Bay Lightning who added the top defenseman on the market in Ryan McDonagh. But there was also a number of other big moves with players like Evander Kane, Paul Stastny and Rick Nash all headed to new teams.

A minor trade by the Capitals stood as barely a footnote amid all the flurry of moves. On Feb. 19, Washington sent a third-round draft pick to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a little known defenseman named Michal Kempny.

“I find out before the morning skate so I just packed two suitcases and I had to catch the plane,” Kempny said. “And that's it.”

On Feb. 17, the Caps were obliterated by the Blackhawks 7-1 in Chicago. Washington still maintained first place in the Metropolitan Division, but that game highlighted the Caps’ weak defense.

Washington had two rookies playing on their blue line regularly in Christain Djoos and Madison Bowey. Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen were a fine defensive pair, but there was no clear partner for the team’s best defenseman, John Carlson. The result was that the Caps dressed a defense with one set tandem and a mishmash of four other players including two rookies joined together into ill-fitting pairs.

The Caps desperately needed another top-four defenseman if they hoped to make a deep playoff run. Finding one midseason, however, is easier said than done.

A top-four defenseman is a valuable commodity and most teams are loathe to give those players up. When one is available, they don’t come cheap.

The Caps made the big splash move in the prior season with the addition of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. The trade did not work out as Shattenkirk never seemed to fit in with the team and ended up playing primarily on the third pair.

Washington did not have a first, second or third round draft pick in the 2017 draft. Giving up a similar haul for a second consecutive season was not an option. In terms of players and prospects, Washington simply did not have the assets needed to land an established defenseman. They had to look at other, cheaper options.

Kempny was a 27-year-old Czech defenseman in his second season with Chicago. His NHL career was not going the way he had hoped. Kempny struggled to earn the trust of Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville playing only 50 games the prior season and was again used sparingly in 2017-18 with only 31 games. He needed a change.

“My situation in Chicago wasn't good,” Kempny said.

Before the trade deadline, general manager Brian MacLellan asked then associate coach Todd Reirden to watch some video on the Czech defenseman.

“Michal I watched play I'd say probably eight games before we acquired him, so it was someone that we were kind of looking at early in the season,” Reirden said during training camp. “As our team was progressing and in some areas not progressing, we needed to look outside for some different options, particularly a guy that was extremely mobile, good skater and could potentially be a good compliment for John Carlson. That was what we saw in him. I thought in particular, comparing the way our system, what we do systematically with our defensemen, his skating ability would really be brought to the forefront with how we do things as a team and I thought that he could excel in that regard with how our team plays. He seemed like a perfect fit.”

On Feb. 19, MacLellan made the trade. It didn’t take long for Kempny to work his way up the depth chart.

“He's obviously a really good skater, one of the best skaters on the team I would say,” Carlson said. “He plays defense quick. He's in people's faces, he's high pressure onto the puck kind of guy.”

“Obviously a great guy that took to everyone else really well as well,” Carlson added. “He just fit in and that was kind of one of the turning points for us as a team getting going, getting ready for the playoffs I would say is right after he got here.”

Kempny played in just 22 games for the Caps before the playoffs. In that time, he quickly found a place in the lineup alongside Carlson. With Kempny and Carlson together, they soon became the top defensive pair on the team. Suddenly a team that could not establish its top four on defense not only had a top four, but a newly established top pair that proved critical to the team’s run to the Stanley Cup.

“Obviously he fit in perfectly,” Carlson said. “There was more to our success than that I think, but certainly that was a key moment for us in terms of filling a need that he was perfectly suitable for.”

It wasn’t McDonagh, Kane, Stastny or Nash who proved to be the biggest acquisitions of the 2018 deadline, but a relatively unknown defenseman who could not stay in the lineup in Chicago. It proved to be the biggest trade of the 2017-18 NHL season.

“Certainly it was the perfect move for us,” Carlson said. “Sometimes you try to just get the best player vs. the best player for your team. He fit perfectly.”

Said Kempny, “I was living my dream last season and I'm living dream right now so I really appreciate that I can be here in this league and this team.”

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How Kuznetsov's suspension helps the Caps' salary cap situation

How Kuznetsov's suspension helps the Caps' salary cap situation

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The suspension to Evgeny Kuznetsov means the Capitals will begin their brutal October schedule without one of their top centers for the first three games. There is a silver lining, however, in terms of the salary cap. Generally when a player is suspended, his cap hit continues to count against the team even though he is not playing. According to a team official, however, because the suspension is not a Department of Player Safety issue, his cap hit will not count during this suspension giving Washington a massive $7.8 million worth of cap room to work with for the first few days of the season.

For a team facing some serious cap issues heading into the season, that is a huge break.

Initially, it appeared a Capitals team that was already over the cap would have to find a way to shed enough salary to afford another player to replace Kuznetsov or go the first three games without an extra forward at all. Instead, the extra cap room essentially gives Washington another week to make the tough roster decisions it will ultimately need to make to get under the cap.

“This is something we have to deal with and react accordingly as a team and putting the best players on the ice in the best spots,” head coach Todd Reirden said Saturday. “We’ll start to get a look at some different combinations.”

It is important to note that the Caps will not be banking cap space. This will work in much the same way as long-term injured reserve. Kuznetsov will not count against the cap for the first three games, but Washington will not be recouping the cap space it will not be using in his absence.

Eventually the Caps will have to pick a fourth line and move Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd or Brendan Leipsic to Hershey. Djoos’ $1.25 million salary will force someone on defense to get traded or waived. Now, however, those decisions can be made based on actual regular-season games against NHL competition rather than based on training camp projections and preseason games.

This also could be an opportunity for Washington to get younger players into a game they otherwise would not have been able to afford.

“There’s going to be some opportunity potentially for some different guys,” Reirden said. “They should take advantage of an opportunity here that is going to be in front of them.”

The team has raved about Martin Fehervary since returning to camp, does he get one of the first three games? Does the team bring in a prospect forward to play center with Kuznetsov out? Getting Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek playing time this season is a goal for the team as well. This could give general manager Brian MacLellan an opportunity to get one of them a game without having to place Pheonix Copley on waivers to free up space.

One of the biggest storylines of the Caps’ training camp was the salary cap and how the team intended to get under the ceiling by Oct. 1. The Kuznetsov suspension is not good news for the team, but it does give MacLellan an extra week to make the really tough decisions.

“There’s a lot of things that can possibly happen,” MacLellan said on Thursday during media day. “We’re going to try to play it out until the end. If something makes sense in the meantime, I think we’d pursue it.”

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NHL to suspend Caps center Kuznetsov for start of regular season

NHL to suspend Caps center Kuznetsov for start of regular season

The NHL will suspend Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov for three games for conduct detrimental to the league, according to a press release from the NHL. He is not expected to appeal. 

Kuznetsov, 27, tested positive for cocaine at the World Championships in May playing for Russia and was suspended four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation. 

That normally would not affect his NHL contract. Under the CBA, “drugs of abuse” like cocaine don’t require a suspension. Instead, the league steers players toward treatment. 

Kuznetsov agreed to take advantage of the NHL Players Association’s treatment programs and extra testing. He also arrived in Washington much earlier than normal for European players in August to take part in informal workouts.  

But Kuznetsov misled the NHL and the Capitals during an investigation of a video that surfaced on May 27 showing him in a Las Vegas hotel room with a white powdery substance on a table directly in front of him. Kuznetsov insisted he’d never used cocaine, which wasn’t true giving the timing of the failed drug test at Worlds. 

The failed IIHF drug test proved that false. Kuznetsov’s positive test came from a sample taken on May 26 the day Russia played the Czech Republic for the bronze medal at Worlds in Slovakia. That was the day before the video appeared on social media. 

“We’ve had discussions after, and I think for the most part, he’s been truthful,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said at media day on Thursday. “I think we want to get him in a spot where he’s going to make a different choice next time.”

Kuznetsov’s salary-cap hit is $7.8 million per season, but this year his base salary and bonuses amount to $8.4 million. He is expected to forfeit some salary for the suspension and his hit will still count against Washington for the time he is out. 

On May 31 the NHL released a statement by deputy commissioner Bill Daly saying the league had reviewed the video, interviewed Kuznetsov and cleared him. 

"While we certainly do not condone or endorse some of the decisions he made on the night in question, Mr. Kuznetsov's account of the events that transpired aligns with other information we have been able to gather, and we have found no basis to question his representations with respect to what did -- and what did not -- occur," Daly said. 

 The Capitals also met with Kuznetsov to hear his side of the story and released a statement attributed to him that same day. 

"While I have never taken illegal drugs in my life and career, I would like to publicly apologize to the Capitals, my teammates, our fans and everyone else, for putting myself in a bad situation," Kuznetsov said. "This was a hard lesson for me to learn."

Kuznetsov was provisionally suspended by the IIHF just two weeks later on June 13 after the failed test. That was upheld and made public on Aug. 23. That led to an in-person interview with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman this week and the subsequent suspension. 

The Capitals expressed both disappointment and support for Kuznetsov. MacLellan was asked if cocaine use affected Kuznetsov’s play during an up-and-down season where he still finished with 72 points. 

“I mean, that’s hard to say. You’d have to ask him that,” MacLellan said. “There’s no indication that those are correlated. It could’ve had an effect, or other stuff could’ve had an effect.”

No teammate said Thursday that Kuznetsov had to address the group about his cocaine use and the consequences. He is banned from international competition until June of 2023, which means Kuznetsov will miss the 2020 Winter Olympics in Beijing if NHL players are allowed to participate. 

“That’s ultimately up to him. Our job right now is we support him,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “There’s always consequences to actions. But main thing that we want to be there for (him) as teammates is to help him come through stronger, whether it’s off the ice, on the ice, to support him to make himself and make our team stronger.”

Kuznetsov will miss games against the defending champion St. Louis Blues on Oct. 2, the New York Islanders on Oct. 4 and the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 5.

“It’s very unfortunate what happened,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “But at the same time for us as friends, I think it’s really important we support him no matter what and we’re going to fight this together as a family here.”

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