Knock on wood, but it looks like the Capitals may be getting healthy on the blue line. Dmitry Orlov's upper-body injury notwithstanding (he is considered day-to-day), Sunday's game saw the return of Nick Jensen and Justin Schultz from COVID-19 protocol. Martin Fehervary remains on protocol, but he returned to the ice Tuesday for practice and is trending towards returning soon. So what does all of this mean for Michal Kempny?
Kempny was recalled from Hershey after the flurry of losses on the blue line and has played in three games. He clearly has come a long way from where he was in the preseason where he looked a step behind even against preseason lineups full of minor league players. Since returning to Washington, however, Kempny has not looked out of place.
"I think that Kemps has come in and done a really good job," head coach Peter Laviolette said. "He's played the tougher of the minutes. He's played more minutes and the tougher minutes and with that, he's done a good job."
Since returning, Kempny has not been sheltered. It may be only three games, but he has averaged 19:44 of playing time, more than he had even in 2018-19 following the Stanley Cup when he was playing a top-pair role with John Carlson. He is also being given tough assignments by Laviolette and is being used primarily in the defensive zone. His 23.08% of offensive zone starts and 31.82% offensive zone faceoff starts are both the lowest among all of the team's defensemen, showing Laviolette is putting Kempny is defensive situations.
Despite Kempny's injury history and a tough preseason, Laviolette has shown him a lot of trust since he stepped back into the NHL.
"It means a lot," Kempny said. "I played lot of minutes. That's what I used to. I play a lot down there in Hershey. It felt really, really good to be back in NHL."
It can be hard to go from top-pair player on a Stanley Cup team to injury rehab and then to the AHL, but Kempny has maintained a positive attitude throughout. It is not surprising then to his teammates that Kempny was able to work to the point where he would receive a call-up and that he has excelled with the opportunity.
"What he's been through and how hard and dedicated he is, it's great to see," Carlson said. "He was playing great in Hershey like we all expected him to, really getting his game back, getting his feeling back, working harder than anybody down there. It's nice to see him come up. He played a heck of a lot of minutes and he did great. It was just great to see."
Kempny has maintained since his return to Washington that he is not looking ahead, but simply appreciative of the chance to be back in the NHL. But he is making the most of his time and it seems he has done enough to at least make discussions about what to do on the blue line difficult for the coaches.
Washington has found enough success this season with its top six that Laviolette really did not deviate from the lineup until injuries and coronavirus forced him to. With Jensen and Schultz back, Fehervary nearing a return and Orlov out only day-to-day, it certainly looks as if the team is nearing a point in which it can have that top six back which would not leave much playing time for Kempny.
"We're looking at everything with regard to our roster," Laviolette said. "If we're healthy, the six guys that were there for the first 30 games, they did a fantastic job and I don't see that changing. Matty Irwin's come in and he's played really well, Kemps has been a contributor. I think it all comes down to the roster and what we have available for space and how we manage that. But he's done a good job, he's played well."
But it also is significant that the team reassigned left defensemen Alex Alexeyev and Lucas Johansen back to Hershey while deciding to keep Kempny at least for the time being. If he plays in 10 games or is on the NHL roster for 30 days, he will have to clear waivers again in order to be sent back down to Hershey. For now, Washington thinks enough of Kempny that the team is OK with the calendar continuing to bring him closer to waivers.
Difficult decisions are coming for Washington's blue line. Depending on Orlov's status, Washington could have nine available defensemen on their roster. Someone is going to be the odd-man-out. Kempny has done enough to at least force the coaches to talk about whether he should stay in Washington now or perhaps even come back in the playoffs as a black ace.
"I'm going to get better, I work hard," Kempny said. "We'll see what's going to happen in next couple days or in the future. I go day-by-day."