When Michal Kempny was acquired by the Capitals in 2018, he saved the season. What looked like a bottom-four acquisition for the defense turned into a top-pair player during the team's Stanley Cup run. Now, Kempny is going to have to earn his spot in the lineup once again, but he is happy just to be healthy and able to compete again.
"Finally I can be here from the start of training camp and to be able to compete with the guys," Kempny said. "It just means a lot to me. I've been through a lot last couple years and I'm glad to be here right now."
It was a long road for Kempny just to get to this point.
Kempny suffered an Achilles injury prior to the 2021 season, the second major injury of his career. In 2019, Kempny tore his left hamstring. The Achilles injury was expected to end his 2021 season, but he nearly was able to work his way back for the playoffs. He even went to AHL Hershey for a few games to condition.
And then bad luck struck again.
"I was missing games so much and I wanted to play so I went down there to Hershey," Kempny said. "I had a chance to play there and I said yes so I played two games, but there happened an accident with the shovel guy."
During a stoppage in play, an ice shoveler fell into Kempny's left leg and ended any hope Kempny had for a return for the postseason.
"It was just bad luck," Kempny said. "I was try to recover for the next shift, standing by the board having the sip, was drinking my drink and just the shovel guy stepped on the towel and just fell down and fell right into my knees. Just my knee went kind of inside so I had like MCL sprain, 2nd grade, so I was out again for 10 days."
"In that moment, I don't know if I should laugh or cry," he added. "It was bad luck."
That moment ended Kempny's 2021 season, but it also marked the beginning of his preparation for 2021-22 and he knew a regular offseason training regimen would not be good enough.
Three serious injuries to the same leg took their toll on Kempny. Ensuring his leg was strong and balanced became his top priority.
"Last season I was rehabbing with my Achilles, I was just struggling with my knee," Kempny said. "I tore my hamstring up here then I broke my Achilles down there and just my knee was kind of in the middle of it. My leg wasn't in the right balance I would say. I worked really hard this offseason to get my left leg right and balanced to be able to compete at the highest level. Right now I feel very confident that I'm moving nice, pain-free. That was No. 1 for me the most important thing. I just said that to my coach back home that I just want to be pain-free, to be able to skate without any pain which is happening right now."
To prepare, Kempny went home, hired a new coach with a history of helping people rehab from injuries and began working with him twice a day.
"We worked really hard. We didn't do any jumping, any running," Kempny said. "We made some changes in my training. We just really focused to come back here to be healthy, pain-free and ready to go."
The work that Kempny put in just to get to this point where he could compete in training camp has not gone unnoticed.
"Just to see what he's overcome and battled through -- rehab is by far the worst thing that you could possibly do for anything," John Carlson said, "And especially when you've got to come into the rink and we're going on the ice having fun, joking around with each other and he's just rehabbing and rehabbing and rehabbing and getting stronger to make it back after his first one and then this, mentally it is really, really tough. But also, the injuries that he has had are not the easiest ones to rehab. They're very strenuous and tedious and it takes a lot of energy and will to do it. That's the type of person he is and I'm looking forward to seeing him feel good again."
On an individual level, Kempny's return is a great story. For this story to have a happy ending for the team, however, Kempny must get back to being able to play at the high level we saw from him in 2018 when he was a top-pair defenseman.
The Caps lost two left defensemen -- Brenden Dillon and Zdeno Chara -- in the offseason which leaves a fairly significant hole on the blue line. With the team being so tight against the salary cap, if Kempny is not able to step into one of those roles, this could be a major weakness for Washington this season and one they may not have the flexibility to address in a trade.
"[Kempny's] been a big part of this team in the past," head coach Peter Laviolette said. "He's somebody that we're counting on."
Kempny, however, struggled in his return from the hamstring injury at the start of the 2019-20 season and did not play at all in 2021. He is very clearly in shape and has been medically cleared as a full participant in training camp, but there is just no way to know what to expect from him this season until he gets into game situations.
"He looks like he's skating well, he looks like he's in really good shape, seems to be in good spirits," general manager Brian MacLellan said. "For him, it's going to be how do you play in the games? So we'll get a better sense in exhibition games where he's at playing-wise."
Normally, preseason games are not something veteran players look forward to. When asked if he was excited for the opportunity to play in the preseason, Kempny responded, "So much."
"I'm very excited," he added. "I said that to our coaches. I'm missing the whole process of everything. The NHL process, to be with the guys in the locker room, to having fun on the ice."
But Kempny does not want to put up expectations for himself or think too far ahead. He's not worried about where he will slot into the lineup or about competing for a top-four spot. What he is concerned with is just getting back to playing the sport he loves.
"I'm focusing on my game, on myself," Kempny said. "I'm here, 100%, I'm healthy, I feel good on the ice and I can't wait to play the games."