If the Washington Capitals entered pre-season with doubts about the role defenceman Martin Fehervary would play in 2021-22, they have since evaporated. On Saturday (9 October), the D.C. franchise placed Michal Kempny on waivers in what was a landmark moment for team, player, and front office.
Kempny, who turned 31 last month, was a mainstay in the Capitals’ lineup until an injury decimated his 2020-21 season. He arrived in the NHL in 2016-17, signed by the Chicago Blackhawks as an undrafted free agent after having excelled in Russia during the previous season. Eighty-one appearances later, he was traded to Washington for a draft pick. Soon after, he would lift the Stanley Cup.
During his time with the Capitals, Kempny has been a fan favourite. A reliable blueliner who played a key role in the organization’s only post-season triumph, the Czech Republic international signed an uncontroversial extension with Washington in 2018.
At the time, it seemed like Kempny’s four-year, $10 million contract gave the Capitals much-needed certainty. Instead, the 6-foot defenceman’s $2.5 million AAV hit has left him on the outside looking in. His story is a cautionary tale about the risks posed by injuries in professional sport. It also marks a significant change in the balance of Washington’s roster.
Why Did the Capitals Waive Michal Kempny?
Health. Fitness. Form. In that order.
Kempny has suffered three major injuries to his left leg in the space of two-and-a-half years. The Czech defenceman’s issues started with a hamstring tear in 2019 – which not only left him in the treatment room, but also made him more susceptible to future ailments. A year later, he went under the knife to repair a torn Achilles’ tendon, delaying his comeback until May 2021.
While on a conditioning stint with the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Hershey Bears, injury struck Kempny once more. A collision with an ice shoveler saw the left-shooting defenceman suffer a medial collateral ligament strain – again, confining him to the physician’s office.
“It was just bad luck,” Kempny said. “I was try[ing] to recover for the next shift, standing by the board having the sip, was drinking my drink and just the shovel guy stepped on the towel, and just fell down and fell right into my knees.”
Training camp, then, gave Kempny an opportunity to restore his place on the Capitals’ roster – and his teammates hoped that he would.
“Just to see what he’s overcome and battled through [is inspiring],” John Carlson remarked. “Especially when you’ve got to come into the rink and we’re going on the ice having fun, joking around with each other and he’s just rehabbing and rehabbing and rehabbing and getting stronger to make it back after his first one and then this, mentally it is really, really tough.”
“But also, the injuries that he has had are not the easiest ones to rehab. They’re very strenuous and tedious, and it takes a lot of energy and will to do it. That’s the type of person he is, and I’m looking forward to seeing him feel good again.”
However, although Kempny’s return is a feel-good story in and of itself, his pre-season went badly.
He was on the ice for three New Jersey Devils goals in a 5-4 loss and was flummoxed on each occasion. In the first period, the 31-year-old was caught flat-footed on Yegor Sharangovich’s goal. In the middle frame, a Kempny turnover led to another New Jersey strike. In the final period, Nico Hischier evaded his attention and notched at the backdoor as a result.
Plainly, Kempny is not the top pair defenceman he once was. At least not yet – which is why he was demoted to Hershey, subject to clearing waivers, on Saturday.
Will Michal Kempny Get Claimed?
Capologists around the NHL are in a tricky situation with the league’s finances as they are. When the Capitals signed Kempny to a four-year deal, they did so under the assumption that the salary cap would continue to rise. It hasn’t – hence the Czech blueliner is on his way to the minors.
As it stands, Kempny’s value is at an all-time low. He’s spent the last two years in the Capitals’ press box – and it shows. Moreover, his $2.5 million AAV makes him exceptionally unattractive to teams with minimal cap space. All in all, it’s very unlikely that Kempny will get claimed.
However, there is a chance – however small – that a struggling franchise could look at Kempny as a reclamation project. If the 31-year-old is contributing in the NHL by the trade deadline, the Capitals could potentially deal him for picks. It’s unlikely, but not impossible.
How Will the Capitals Line Up on Opening Night?
With Kempny now out of contention, head coach Peter Laviolette’s defensive selection conundrum is now less complicated. Dmitry Orlov will partner with John Carlson on Washington’s top pair to start the season, with Fehervary and Justin Schultz likely to round out the top four.
Kempny’s demotion leaves Trevor van Riemsdyk in prime position to start on the left side of the Capitals’ bottom pair, probably with Nick Jensen to his right.
If unclaimed on waivers, Kempny could offer the Caps viable defensive depth later in the season. First, though, he has to rediscover his form and fitness. It’ll be a long road back to the NHL, but it’s a journey that Washington’s Czech Stanley Cup-winning defenceman would relish.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from the UK, who covers the Washington Capitals for THW. He is a recent graduate from the University of Warwick and is currently studying a postgraduate degree in Newspaper Journalism at City, University of London. To stay up-to-date with Luke’s work, you can find his tweets via @LukeJames_32.