Michal Kempny was the Washington Capitals’ unsung hero on last year’s run to the Stanley Cup — though eventually receiving enough praise from hockey analysts and media to render the “unsung” part ironic.
Kempny arrived in a late February trade that garnered little notice. He went from an afterthought and a healthy scratch on the Chicago Blackhawks to a vital role among the Capitals’ top four defensemen as Washington dispatched opponent after opponent in April, May and June.
With the news Tuesday that Kempny would miss the playoffs after undergoing surgery to repair a torn hamstring he suffered in a fight March 20, the Capitals may already have their next Kempny waiting in the wings: Nick Jensen.
Washington acquired Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings a day after landing a much bigger trade for forward Carl Hagelin. While praise for Hagelin has in a sense overshadowed the Jensen trade so far, coach Todd Reirden and the organization have an expanded role in mind for the blueliner.
Jensen skated in Kempny’s place alongside John Carlson at practice Wednesday before Thursday’s home game against the Montreal Canadiens. Actually, it wasn’t quite Kempny’s place; Jensen and Carlson are both right-handed, so Carlson, the more experienced of the two, shifted over to the left to accommodate his new linemate.
Since Kempny’s injury, the Capitals had been playing Christian Djoos in his spot and keeping Jensen on the third pairing. Now, the new guy stands to see expanded minutes on the ice.
Reirden, a former NHL defenseman himself, pointed out the similarities and differences between Kempny and Jensen.
“(Jensen’s) ability to skate is noticeable, every night,” Reirden said. “That’s something that we have a little bit of a blueprint from Kempny last year on how to use a player like that.”
On the other hand, incorporating Jensen, who was one of Detroit’s better defensemen, wasn’t the same as easing Kempny into the rotation and building up his ice time, the coach said.
“(Jensen was) coming off a situation where he’s playing a lot for another team and has a really high confidence level, whereas Kempny came to us after 17 scratches by a non-playoff team,” Reirden said. “You’ve got a different type of personality there, and then how you’re building this player within behind closed doors. So he has to actually play less for us than he did in Detroit. That’s something that gets factored in there as well.”
Jensen was the last player off the practice ice Wednesday, unavailable to the media but hard at work as he further acclimates to Washington’s system. His new teammates have praised him in recent weeks, particularly in his role on the penalty kill.
“I think he’s fit right in,” Matt Niskanen said in March. “He seems like a smart player, because he’s picked up on everything super fast on how we want to play and he’s done a good job.”
The Capitals have another chance to clinch the Metropolitan Division Thursday, either if they beat Montreal or if the New York Islanders lose in regulation to the Florida Panthers. Should neither of those come to pass, the Islanders will move within one or two standings points of Washington, and their season finale against one another Saturday at Capital One Arena will decide the Metro champ.
T.J. Oshie said the team didn’t feel that avoiding the single-game clinching scenario was of high priority.
“Right now we’re going into games getting our game to where it needs to be,” Oshie said. “If we play the way we can and the way we want to moving forward and we lose and we come to battle in the end, whatever, it’s fine. But our focus right now is how we’re playing. And to get these things ingrained in our game, it’s hard to just flip the switch come playoff time, so we’ve got a couple games to tune up.”
• Adam Zielonka can be reached at email@example.com.
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