The addition of Michal Kempny at the trade deadline in 2018 is one of the major reasons the Capitals would go on to win the Stanley Cup. The loss of Kempny to injury in 2019 is one of the major reasons the team lost in the first round of the playoffs. With that in mind, given his struggles in 2019-20 it is no surprise to see the rest of the defense struggle as well.
But where did things go wrong?
When retracing Kempny’s season, you see a season of hope for a speedy recovery over time turn into one of struggle. His return initially brought an immediate positive impact, but soon after the blue line struggled and suddenly Kempny went from a top-pair defenseman to a player struggling to keep his spot in the lineup.
Here is a timeline of Kempny’s season showing where things turned from hopeful optimism to clear frustration.
Kempny’s 2018-19 season ended on March 20 when he suffered a torn left hamstring in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The injury kept him out of the postseason, but was not expected to keep him out of training camp as general manager Brian MacLellan indicated in the conference call prior to the 2019 draft.
“It's wait and see, but we're expecting him to be available for camp," MacLellan said. "He's progressing well. I haven't got an update over the last week or so, but before that he's on target to play in training camp.”
At media day at the start of training camp, Kempny was asked if he felt he needed to play in the preseason to be ready for the season.
“I can play game when I'm not 100-percent so when I feel that I'm ready to go, I'm going to play. But if it's going to be like during the training camp, I don't know yet.”
MacLellan was also asked about Kempny’s status heading into training camp.
“He’s progressing well,” MacLellan said. “I think the training staff is going to be cautious with him. I think the most important thing with him is that he’s healthy going into the year.”
Despite all the early optimism, Kempny was not ready for the start of the season and it soon became clear how badly the team missed him. Washington jumped out to a 3-2-2 start and was allowing 3.29 goals per game.
Following a 6-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, head coach Todd Reirden was asked about what the team was missing without Kempny in the lineup.
“The one thing that Michal was able to grow right from day one with us was just understanding how we want to play, how our team needs to play,” Reirden said. “I think he moves the puck quick when it's on his stick and it gets in our forwards hands as quick as possible. He does it first by skating by going back quick for pucks and then delivering it quickly. And then supporting the rush when he has chances and being active on the blue line in terms of getting pucks through. Those are some things we're looking forward to having back.”
The hole left by Kempny’s absence on the blue line was evident, but the day following the loss to Colorado Reirden said at practice that Kempny would not play in the team’s next game against the Toronto Maple Leafs and made clear he would not be rushed back into the lineup.
It's making the choice that's the right thing for our organization and for Michal. I think that we've been really happy with the development of this player since we got him and saw the strides he made last year and then we were able to realize how big of a loss he would be when we didn't have him. I think that doing anything now to set him up for anything less than success is not worth it. We have to view the risk versus reward and there won't be any risk, it will be that he is 100-percent cleared, ready to go and ready to play. He's been in situations that are game-like and he's ready to go continue how his season was going last year. It's not going to be perfect, he hasn't had a training camp, it's going to take a little while. Don't expect him to play 25 minutes with John Carlson Game one. But it'll be nice to have a left shot back in there and allow us to sort things out that way a little bit on our back end. He's someone that as I alluded to in the past is a guy that gets back for pucks quickly, moves it quickly and supports the rush. There's not a lot of end and play for Michael Kempny in terms of handling the puck. He gets, it moves it, gives it to our high-skilled forwards and supports the rush. When he gets the puck on the blue line he creates a shot lane and he's able to deliver it. He's gotten some points that way. That's what he does and that's an element that we need to continue to find back there and it'll be nice to have him back doing that.
At this point, however, it is fair to wonder if something had gone wrong. The talk at the start of training camp was all hopeful that Kempny would be back for the start of the season. Now halfway through October, no one seemed sure when he would be back.
Reirden, however, denied Kempny had suffered any sort of setback.
“There's nothing to be concerned about," he said. "If there was a setback I would let you know. There isn't one. He's going on the path he's supposed to be going on and many other people would have this as a longer-term injury than it already has been so he's doing great. He's working extremely hard, our trainers are doing and doctors are doing an excellent job with him. He helps us in so many ways. His practices, his practice habits, how he how he competes, how he battles and always helps everybody improve. It'll be good to get him back when we do, but I can tell you that it will be at the right time, regardless of how our team does.”
Kempny made his season debut against the New York Rangers. He played 14:24, the lowest among the team’s defensemen. But in limited minutes, Kempny scored a goal.
“I felt pretty good, actually,” he said following the game. “My legs felt good. Obviously not an easy situation for me. But I got to say just thank you to all of the staff, whole organization, my teammates, my family, my friends who were supporting me all the way through here and help me. It means a lot to me.”
“I was very pleased with his game,” Reirden said. “Just for seeing exactly where he ended up minutes wise, we had some target thoughts of some minutes. They weren't easy minutes on him, obviously. ... I think this was exactly a perfect game for Michal to get back into.”
A flu bug hit the team coming out of the Christmas break forcing Kempny to miss two games. He returned on Dec. 31 in a loss to the New York Islanders. Not surprisingly, his minutes were limited to just 12:59, but Reirden had an interesting comment afterward about the Kempny, John Carlson pair.
“I hope once [Kempny] gets healthy we'll start putting him back in that situation with John and going into the All-Star Game and moving past there, we get that pair up and running to where they had been in the past.”
Together this season, Kempny and Carlson have a Corsi-For percentage of 48.77 and an expected goals-for percentage of 48.79 despite Carlson being on pace for 89 points. No defenseman has scored that many points since the 1993-94 season. Last season, Kempny and Carlson managed a Corsi-For percentage of 52.18 and expected goals-for percentage of 48.95.
Washington suffered arguably its worst two-game stretch of the season on Feb. 8 and 10 in lopsided losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and the Islanders. In the practice following the loss to New York, Kempny took responsibility for two of the Islanders’ five goals.
“Two goals was mine last night,” he said. “I was late with the squeeze first goal. If I'd done those two situations differently, we might win the game. There's lot of mistakes we've got to clear out and we've got to get through this. We have great team full of talent, full of skills, we just got to do something more through it and we will. We will do and we'll get through it.”
Right defense was a major weakness for the Caps all season long. Despite that, however, MacLellan traded for left defenseman Brenden Dillon on Feb. 18. Whether this had more to do with MacLellan not liking the market for right defenseman or a reflection of Kempny’s play is a matter of debate. When MacLellan was asked if Kempny or Jensen would get pushed out of the lineup with the addition of Dillon, however, his answer said a lot about how far Kempny had fallen this season.
“I think they both at times have been good players and then I think probably like the rest of our group it’s been inconsistent,” MacLellan said. “I think that’s the struggle for us is to get some consistency back there and I think now that we have seven [defensemen] you can hold guys a little more accountable. If you’re not playing well, you’re out.”
At practice, Kempny skated as an extra defenseman when the team went through its defensive pairs. He ended up being a healthy scratch in the March 4 game against Philadelphia.
With it clear that Kempny was not going to play in the next game, Reirden was asked about his struggles.
“[Kempny’s] an excellent player, was a big part of us winning the Cup two years ago,” Reirden said. “I think gone through a serious injury and his game isn't where he would like it right now and probably us either. For me, it's about trying to find the right combination of guys that give us the best chance to have six defensemen that play well together that can give us the best chance to win. We've got super important points here, important games coming up this week so we'll go with the guys that give us the best chance to win tomorrow night.”
Without trading for Kempny in 2018, the Caps don’t win the Cup. From playing on the top pair in the Stanley Cup Final to being a healthy scratch because he was not among the six defensemen that gave the team “the best chance to win,” that marks a precipitous fall.
In the first eight games without Kempny, the Caps allowed 3.25 goals per game. From when he came into the lineup on Oct. 18 to Dec. 23, that number improved to 2.77. Since Kempny returned after a brief absence due to illness on Dec. 31, however, the defense allowed a whopping 3.31 goals per game which ranks 27th in the league over that time.
The team’s defensive struggles since December can hardly be all placed on Kempny’s shoulders -- no one has played particularly well defensively -- but his play has continued to decline through the season to the point that he was a healthy scratch and MacLellan was willing to trade for Dillon who has been playing in Kempny’s spot on the top pair almost the entire time since he arrived in Washington.
Looking back at this, it seems the root of the problem goes back to training camp where Kempny's return continued to get pushed back. Kempny knows this has been a rough season for him as he has said as much. The question is why? Whether the injury, how it affected his training over the summer and the lack of training camp and preseason have contributed to Kempny's poor season and, if so, how much is a question that can only be answered by Kempny.
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