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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