TAMPA — Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny flicked a wrist shot from the point, finding the back of the net in the Capitals’ 4-2 victory Friday against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The goal came just a day after coach Barry Trotz talked about the offensive looks Kempny has been getting in the playoffs.
Offense from Kempny is a bonus for the Capitals, who acquired the 27-year-old just before the trade deadline to help shore up a porous blue line.
Kempny has filled that role, and then some. The Czech is now a fixture in the Capitals’ top-four pairings, slotting across from John Carlson and averaging 17:37 in ice time.
As a team, the Capitals are giving up just 29.7 shots on goal per game this postseason — a drastic turnaround from the 32.6 allowed before Kempny’s addition.
Kempny, in just his second year in the NHL after a career overseas, was riding the bench in Chicago under Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville when the trade happened.
It wasn’t seen then as a flashy move — not like last year, when the Capitals added Kevin Shattenkirk, the high-profile St. Louis Blues defenseman at the deadline. Shattenkirk, a rental, was viewed as the “final piece” to get Washington over the top. That, of course, backfired.
With Kempny, the Capitals took the quiet approach.
“Sometimes those softer deals are actually the least disruptive to your team,” Trotz told The Washington Times before the postseason. “Sometimes when you go too high up the tree, for higher fruit, everybody gets bumped down. If you go way up to the top, there are four guys who are angry because they’re getting bumped down.”
Trotz didn’t mention Shattenkirk by name, but he didn’t need to. Adding Shattenkirk put the Capitals in an awkward situation. Carlson, who had fit perfectly with the first power-play unit, was bumped to the second. Promising young defenseman Nate Schmidt was the odd man out.
Even Shattenkirk struggled. He saw himself as a top-four defenseman, but was paired with Brooks Orpik on the third unit. He was a -4 in the playoffs.
The addition of Kempny has gone smoother. He’s added depth and a reliable role player next to Carlson. Before the February trade, the Capitals were regularly playing two rookies, Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos — who, at 169 pounds, was often manhandled by opposing top lines.
Washington general manager Brian MacLellan, who said Kempny was the team’s No. 1 trade target at the deadline, felt the defenseman was flying “under the radar” because he was routinely a healthy scratch in Chicago.
In Washington, Kempny is valued for his first-pass ability and his skating. Trotz runs a different scheme than Chicago, and puts an emphasis on staying strict defensively.
“I feel pretty good on the ice here,” Kempny said. “You know, somethings are different than Chicago but hockey is the same everywhere. A couple of things change here, but the system we play here has helped me.”
The Capitals actually acquired another lesser-known defenseman before the deadline, Jakub Jerabek from Montreal, but it has been Kempny who has stuck in the lineup. Jerabek saw playing time in two playoff games before being benched for Djoos.
Kempny said he appreciates the opportunity to play heavy minutes. He was inconsistent in Chicago, and appeared to lose Quenneville’s trust. But he’s remained steady with the Capitals.
He has even surprised with his ability to transform from a stay-at-home defenseman to one becoming involved offensively. Through 14 playoff games, Kempny has 30 shots on goal. In 22 games with the Capitals in the regular season, he had 32.
“He’s come in seamlessly for us for the most part, adjusting,” Trotz said.”But you saw in the last series: He played big minutes against top players, be it the Malkins and the Crosbys, and he’s done a really good job. He’s just one of those players that is effective, efficient, effective, gets it done.”
Kempny, currently making $900,000, will be a free agent at the end of the season. MacLellan said last month he is interested in re-signing him, if the financials work.
Kempny hasn’t given MacLellan a reason to change his mind since.
“Sometimes it was really hard for me (in Chicago),” Kempny said. “But you know, bad things are good things. Maybe these bad things made me a little bit stronger. Things changed.”