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Key Caps questions: Will Michal Kempny continue to play like a top-four defenseman?

Key Caps questions: Will Michal Kempny continue to play like a top-four defenseman?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals correspondent JJ Regan is here to help you through the offseason doldrums as he discusses key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Will Michal Kempny continue to play like a top-four defenseman?

Michal Kempny proved to be an absolute steal at the trade deadline for the Caps who acquired him for just a third-round pick. Washington had an obvious need for a top-four defenseman and they took a chance on a little-known blue liner from the Chicago Blackhawks who struggled to stay in the lineup.

It worked.

Kempny quickly found chemistry with John Carlson and his addition bolstered the team's top-four on defense, turning it from a weakness to a strength in the playoffs.

But can he do it again?

Kempny has only two seasons of NHL experience. The most he’s played in a single season is 59 games which he did in 2015-16 while playing in the KHL. As well as he played in the playoffs, it is a bit of a gamble to simply rely on him to take a full-time top-four role going forward given the NHL sample size is still small.

But there is no reason to expect any drop-off in Kempny’s play.

Kempny thrived with the opportunity to take on a bigger role. Here’s a breakdown of his 2017-18 season:

  • October to Feb. 19 with the Chicago Blackhawks: 31 out of 59 games played, 15:19 of ice time per game, seven points (1 goal, 6 assists)
  • Feb. 19 through the regular season with the Caps: 22 out of 24 games played, 16:45 of ice time per game, three points (2 goals, 1 assist)
  • Playoffs: 24 out of 24 games played, 17:42 of ice time per game, five points (2 goals, 3 assists).

Kempny went from a healthy scratch to a top-four defenseman once Todd Reirden got his hands on him, and, in case you haven’t heard, Reirden isn’t going anywhere. With a full season to work on him, there’s good reason to be excited about what Kempny can do going forward. He knows it, too.

Despite getting interest from other teams prior to becoming a free agent, he chose instead to re-sign with Washington for four years with a $2.5 million cap hit. That’s a bargain price for a top-four defenseman, but after struggling to start his NHL career, Kempny decided not to mess with a good thing.

Kempny proved to be a dependable top-four defenseman for the Caps throughout the playoffs under the tutelage of Reirden. With Reirden now head coach, there’s no reason to think Kempny will not continue to thrive in Washington.

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NHL Power Rankings: What a difference Tom Wilson makes

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NHL Power Rankings: What a difference Tom Wilson makes

If I told you the Caps would lose Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie on the current road trip and win at least two of their four games, you would probably take that.

Well, on Monday, Washington has a chance to grab three out of four wins on their road trip in a stretch that feels like it could be a turning point on a sluggish start to the season.

At 9-7-3, there’s no question the Caps were hoping for a better start to the season considering all the players they had coming back. Having said that, given all the challenges they have faced to start the season (Tom Wilson’s suspension, all the injuries), first year head coach Todd Reirden has done a decent job to get the team to this point.

Now a quarter of the way in, however, it’s time to pick things up and make a run.

SEE THIS WEEKS’S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

Here are a few observations from the past week:

  • What a difference Wilson makes. The Caps look like a completely different team with him in the lineup. When he first started playing on the top line last season, he looked a bit out of place, but that’s definitely no longer the case. He adds so much more than just physicality. He is a good skater, wins board battles and has the offensive and defensive ability to make that top line defensively balanced while still being so dangerous offensively. Not only does he look tremendous on the top line, but the Caps also really struggle to fill his spot in the lineup when he’s out. If you still think he’s nothing more than a goon, you’re just not paying attention to all the positives he brings to the lineup.
  • The Caps have found a backup goalie. I have gone back and forth on Pheonix Copley, but there’s no denying how well he has played when the team needed him the most. He looked great in the preseason, shaky to start, but he has gotten better with each game. With Holtby’s injury, Copley was forced to start three road games in four days and he provided solid, strong goaltending. In seven appearances this season, Copley has a 2.65 GAA, .908 save percentage and, most importantly, a record of 4-2-1. He is not nearly as smooth a goalie as Holtby, but he has great size which he uses to his advantage specifically down low. He has also looked great on breakaways and odd-man rushes. The question of backup goaltending now looks officially settled.
  • This isn’t the first time we’ve seen John Carlson with Dmitry Orlov as a pair. They played a few games together at the start of last season and they looked horrible together. Putting Orlov with Matt Niskanen and Carlson with Michal Kempny provides much more balanced pairings, but it just wasn’t working this season. Interestingly enough, all four players have looked better the last few games since switching it up. Perhaps the pairs had gotten stale and they just needed time apart, but for now the switch is working.
  • Madison Bowey may be the most improved player on the roster this season and is playing with a lot more confidence on both ends of the ice. That first NHL goal is coming.

How improved the Caps look with Wilson back plus how the team banded together in the wake of so many significant injuries gave them a boost this week.

FIND OUT WHERE THEY LAND IN THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS

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Capitals Injury updates: Braden Holtby a possibility to start in Montreal

Capitals Injury updates: Braden Holtby a possibility to start in Montreal

The Capitals were able to pull out a win Friday in Colorado without Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie or Braden Holtby. With a game Monday in Montreal, the team hopes it will not be quite as shorthanded against the Canadiens.

Washington practiced Sunday in Montreal and three goalies took to the ice. Holtby was on the ice along with Pheonix Copley and Ilya Samsonov 

Holtby suffered an upper-body injury Wednesday morning prior to the game in Winnipeg. That injury kept him out of the lineup both Wednesday and Friday. The Caps netminder told Chris Kuc of The Atlantic that he is ready to play, but still needs to be cleared by doctors.

Head coach Todd Reirden said after practice that Holtby was a possibility to start Monday.

With Holtby’s status still up in the air, Samsonov remains with the team in case he is needed to suit up as a backup.

While Holtby was on the ice for practice, both Kuznetsov and Oshie were not. Reirden told the media that both players are day-to-day and are with the team in Montreal. Their status for Monday remains uncertain.

With no Kuznetsov or Oshie, Reirden kept the offensive lines largely the same from Friday except for switching Devante Smith-Pelly to the third line and moving Brett Connolly down to the fourth.

Alex Ovechkin – Lars Eller – Tom Wilson 
Jakub Vrana – Nicklas Backstrom – Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson – Travis Boyd – Devante Smith-Pelly
Dmitrij Jaskin – Nic Dowd – Brett Connolly

Reirden switched up the lines frequently on Friday and Stephenson, Boyd, Smith-Pelly combined for a goal in the second period.

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