In a series that features superstar offensive talent in Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, it was a defenseman with fewer than 150 games of NHL experience who opened the scoring.
Michal Kempny scored his first career playoff goal in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Friday to spark the Capitals to a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. With every passing game, the acquisition of Kempny continues to look more and more like a home run trade for the Caps who managed to shore up their blue line for a top-four defenseman.
And all it cost them was a third-round draft pick.
This year’s trade deadline was different than in years passed for the Caps. Unlike in 2016 and 2017 when general manager Brian MacLellan was only looking to strengthen already dominant rosters, this Capitals team had a real position of need on defense.
Would they trade for New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh? Would they find a way to bring in superstar Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators?
On FebruaryMacLellan made his move trading a third-round draft pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for Kempny.
It was a move met with a resounding, “Who?”
Just one year after bringing in the biggest name on the market at the trade deadline in Kevin Shattenkirk, MacLellan tried a different tactic. Even though the team had a much greater need on the blue line, they traded for Kempny, a player who had only played 31 games this season for a struggling Chicago team, and for Jakub Jerabek, another little-known defenseman playing for the Montreal Canadiens.
“You add a guy like Shattenkirk and it changes the dynamic at the backend,” MacLellan said to the media in April. “All of a sudden, [John] Carlson's not on your first power play. It changes the chemistry more so than what we've done this year. We had holes to fill this year and we filled with them with guys that aren't as high profile, but are just steady and provided the things we needed for our team. So it's worked out good.”
Jerabek has been a solid depth addition, but Kempny has been absolutely critical to the team’s success.
For much of the season, the Capitals had rookies Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey in the top six. Djoos was in the top four playing alongside John Carlson.
Having two rookies on the blue line in the regular season is one thing, but having two in the playoffs is quite another. While both Djoos and Bowey played admirably in their rookie seasons, dressing both in the playoffs would present an obvious weakness for opponents to exploit.
If the Capitals hoped to have any postseasons success, they needed to find a top-four defenseman.
But those players don’t come cheap, especially at the trade deadline when it becomes a seller’s market. Washington also had little room to work with under the salary cap.
So MacLellan did not go after the big names that would have required him to trade off significant assets and/or roster players in order to acquire. Instead, he went after a value player who he expected big things from.
“It's a lot of different role for me, but I had a chance to play with the best players against best players, against top lines,” Kempny said after a practice in April. “I really appreciate it for that. I had good ice time. These things are good for me.”
Kempny, 27, did not even begin his NHL career until 2016. When he came to Washington he had only 82 NHL games of experience including one playoff game. He was in and out of the lineup in Chicago with only 31 games on the season and seven points.
But the Capitals did their homework and believed Kempny had the ability to not just fit into the lineup, but as a top-four defenseman and, just as importantly” cheap.
“[Kemny's] a good skater, a good puck mover,” MacLellan said. I know he was not always in the lineup in Chicago, but he was our No. 1 target going into the trade deadline.
The difference has been notable.
Before the Kempny trade, Washington was allowing 2.98 goals per game. After he was acquired, they allowed only 2.74 goals per game in the regular season. That number has further improved in the playoffs where the Caps are only allowing 2.62 goals per game.
“It's been huge,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He's come in seamlessly for us for the most part, adjusting. But you saw it the last series: He played big minutes against top players, be it the [Evgeni] Malkins and the [Sidney] Crosbys, and he's done a really good job. He's just one of those players that is efficient, effective, gets it done."
Kempny scored his first career playoff goal on Friday in Game 1 against the Lightning. He also recorded four shots on goal and two blocked shots.
In Kempny, the Caps found an under the radar top-four defenseman to shore up their defense. Without him, they would not be playing in the Eastern Conference Final and sit just seven wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup.
“When I came here, everything was new,” Kempny said. "New organization, new teammates. But I felt like every day better and better. I feel like home now. I think we have such a good group guys, I really enjoy it here."
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