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Game #22 – Hawks vs. Capitals Spotlight: Michal Kempny’s Phoenix

You knew it was going to happen. From the second the Hawks traded Michal Kempny for a conditional third-round pick from Washington (which in an annoyingly roundabout way turned into Niklas Nordgren, who might be a scoring threat in 2021), he was destined to play a noticeable role in getting Washington its Cup. You’ll remember three of his five playoff points (one goal, two assists) coming when the lights shined brightest as we all pondered how often he must have “run over” Q’s “dog” to have himself relegated to a position in which trading him for a pick that won’t matter until people stop caring about the Hawks again seemed appealing. But you’ve read this crown of sonnets before, so what’s he doing now?

Since departing, Kempny has had two things break his way. First, he’s simply getting more playing time, primarily because he hasn’t been the Lionel Hutz to Todd Reirden’s (and Barry Trotz’s before him) Judge Snyder. Through 17 games this year, Kempny is averaging well over 18 minutes of ice time, by far the most of his career. Second, he’s played a good chunk of his time with John Carlson instead of whichever one-legged vagrant Q demanded he drag around in the three-legged race Ulf Samuelsson and his hairpiece called a defensive strategy in his time with the Hawks.

Over the past few games, though, Kempny has found himself away from Carlson, instead pairing with Matt Niskanen and taking more dungeon shifts than just about anyone expected. In the last four games in which they’ve spent most of their time together, they’ve started in the oZ 25%, 80%, 25%, and 0%, respectively. This weirdness seems like a consequence of the Caps’s hot and cold start to the year. It makes some sense, since dungeon starts have been Niskanen’s MO since he got to Washington and Kempny has always shown a penchant for possession. In theory, it should work.

Perhaps most interesting about Kempny’s rebirth in Washington is how he’s been used since arriving. Over his last five games, Kempny has played at least one minute and as much as 5:55 (against Arizona) on the PK, which was rare in his time in Chicago. Both Trotz and Reirden have tended to use Kempny more often in the defensive zone. In Kempny’s 31 games with the Hawks last year, he started in the offensive zone at an enviable 54+% rate. Upon arrival in Washington, those starts plummeted to around 43% over 22 games, which has continued into this year. And though that put a dent in his CF% (from 53+ to 47+), his high-danger-scoring-chances-for percentage stayed at a constant 52% after the trade, bolstering the argument that when Kempny was on the ice, scoring chances tended to crop up more often than not.

But for all the kisses we’ve blown Kempny’s way, there’s been the nagging fear that last year’s performance was more a dead cat bounce than a sign of tapped potential. And early on, you can use the primary stats to pad that fear. He’s got no goals and just three assists (one of which came in 3-on-3, so who fucking cares?) in 17 games. Though Kempny’s never really lit up the stat sheet, you wouldn’t be off in expecting a few more points from him having played a decent amount of time with Carlson and behind the Alex Ovechkin line. He’s also got 16 PIM early on, good for third on the team behind Evgeny Kuznetsov and Lars Eller. Though Kempny’s always had more snarl than his Werewolf of London hairdo would suggest, the 77 PIM pace doesn’t really bode well for a guy whose appeal lies in his puck possession abilities.

Still, when you look at the peripherals, it’s hard not to ask “What if?” A 50.3+ CF% despite starting in the oZ just 46.4% of the time is strong, especially since that’s never been how Kempny’s been used until now. His 2.1 CF% Rel trails only Christian Djoos and Carlson for Caps D-men, and they start in the oZ at respective 57+% and 54+% rates. And there’s still time for him to find his stroke, especially if he’s still shaking off rust from the concussion Robert “Big Pussy” Bortuzzo doled out in his efforts to elbow his way to the last slice of gabagool earlier in the year. At the very least, it’s safe to say that Kempny’s four-year, $2.5 million per against the cap and ability to skate and puck-handle without circumcising himself would look a lot better than Brandon “It’s the Zone-Defense Scheme’s Fault I Suck” Manning’s albatross (and given how bad he’s been, even two years at $2.5 million per is an albatross) any day of the week.

All of our eyes will be on Kempny in a sweater he wants to wear, wondering why he never got the shot we’d all love to see now.

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