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The trade that saved the Caps' season

The trade that saved the Caps' season

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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Key Caps questions: What rookies will have an impact next season?


Key Caps questions: What rookies will have an impact next season?

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: What rookies will have an impact with the Caps next season?

In the team's push for the Stanley Cup the last few years, the Capitals brought in several veterans through free agency and trades to bolster the roster. As a result, there was not much room for the team's prospects. Last season, however, Washington took a very different approach.

Nine rookie players suited up for the Caps for at least one game in the regular season in 2017-18, the most the team has played since the 2013-14 season. Six rookies also played at least one game in the playoffs. Washington dressed zero rookies in the postseason in each of the two years prior. In fact, that is the most rookies Washington has used in a postseason in franchise history. 

To say the Caps won because they used their young prospects more so than before would be a gross oversimplification, but clearly there was value to adding cheap, young, talented players to the lineup.

But by returning virtually the same roster as last season, there will be little room for rookies to make a similar impact in 2018-19.

Here's a projected roster of the Caps' opening night lineup:

Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Nicklas Backstrom - T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky - Lars Eller - Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson - Nic Dowd/Travis Boyd - Devante Smith-Pelly

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Christian Djoos - Madison Bowey

Braden Holtby
Pheonix Copley

Barring injury, there's just not much room there for the young players to break in.

Of the players who still qualify as rookies, the ones to watch are Boyd, Nathan Walker, Shane Gersich, Liam O'Brien, Riley Barber, Jonas Siegenthaler and Ilya Samsonov.

The most obvious answer to the question is Boyd. Jay Beagle's departure leaves a spot open at fourth line center and Boyd would be my pick for the most likely player to fill that role.

The addition of Nic Dowd means Boyd may be the only rookie forward to make the team on opening night. Barry Trotz usually kept only one extra forward and defenseman on the roster, but we do not know if Todd Reirden will have a similar outlook. If there is another spot open, Walker, Gerish, O'Brien and Barber will be in the running. I am not sure I see Walker becoming an every day NHL player, but I could see him coming on as a 14th guy since the Caps have a little bit of breathing room under the salary cap. The same does not go for Gersich who has a higher NHL ceiling. Even though he jumped right into the NHL last season, it is much more likely he goes to the AHL this year to take a large role in Hershey rather than to play scattered minutes in Washington.

O'Brien and Barber also make this list because the clock is ticking for them. Both are 24 and both have spent several years in the organization. They need a strong training camp to prove they belong in the NHL or they risk being viewed less as prospects and more as lifetime AHLers.

Like the offense, the defense also seems pretty set. Of the team's defensive prospects, Siegenthaler is probably the most NHL ready, but I have a hard time believing he will supplant any of the seven defensemen in training camp.

And that brings us to Samsonov.

Samsonov will make his North America debut this fall playing in Hershey. Brain MacLellan has been adamant that Samsonov will be starting in the AHL in order to adjust to the North American game. Just how quickly he can adjust, however, may determine if he earns a jump to the NHL at some point next season.

Samsonov is widely seen as Washington's future in net. While there is no reason to rush him, it is not hard to envision him supplanting Pheonix Copley as the backup should Copley struggle. But first, he has to play well in Hershey.

While the Caps look set throughout the roster, injuries always leave open the possibility for a player to get called up and play his way into a full-time role. As of now, however, it looks like there is not much room for the team's rookies this season, other than Boyd.

Other key Caps questions:

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NBC Sports to nationally broadcast 18 Capitals games in 2018-19 season

NBC Sports

NBC Sports to nationally broadcast 18 Capitals games in 2018-19 season

All eyes will be on the Caps as they begin their quest to defend their Stanley Cup title. Literally.

NBC Sports released its national broadcast schedule for the NHL regular season on Monday and coverage will begin with the Capitals' home-opener on Oct. 3 against the Boston Bruins. The nation will be able to witness Washington raising its first Stanley Cup banner to the rafters on NBCSN.

NBC Sports will present a total of 109 games in 2018-19, the most since acquiring NHL rights before 2005-06 and the Caps will be featured prominently.

Washington will appear eight times on NBCSN's Wednesday Night Hockey, the most of any team in the NHL, and four times on NHL on NBC. NBCSN will also broadcast an additional six games.

All games will be streamed live on and the NBC Sports app to authenticated users via TV Everywhere.

Here is the Capitals schedule as released by NBC Sports:

Wed. Oct. 3: Boston at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Wed. Oct. 10: Vegas at Washington, 8 p.m. on NBCSN
Wed. Oct. 17: N.Y. Rangers at Washington, 7 p.m. on NBCSN
Wed. Nov. 7: Pittsburgh at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Tues. Dec. 11: Detroit at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN*
Wed. Dec. 19: Pittsburgh at Washington, 8 p.m. on NBCSN
Fri. Dec. 21: Buffalo at Washington, 7 p.m. on NBCSN*
Tues. Jan. 8: Philadelphia at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN*
Sun. Jan. 20: Washington at Chicago, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Wed. Jan. 23: Washington at Toronto, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Sun. Feb. 3: Boston at Washington, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Sun. March 3: Washington at N.Y. Rangers, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Wed. March 6: Washington at Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Tues. March 12: Washington at Pittsburgh, 7 p.m. on NBCSN*
Tues. March 19: Washington at New Jersey, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN*
Wed. March 20: Tampa Bay at Washington, 7:30 p.m. on NBCSN
Sun. March 24: Philadelphia at Washington, 12:30 p.m. on NBC
Tues. March 26: Carolina at Washington, 7 p.m. on NBCSN*

* These games will be broadcast nationally, but will not be seen on NBCSN locally because they will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington

NBC Sports Washington remains the home of the Capitals for the 2018-19 season and will broadcast a majority of the team's games for the season including pre and postgame coverage. You can also expect extensive coverage on throughout the season.