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Caps Without Kempny Indefinitely

With the top four defenseman out, the Caps are fortunate to have Christian Djoos on hand and ready to step in

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com

When the Caps acquired defenseman Michal Kempny in a seemingly minor trade with Chicago in February of 2018, they didn't see him as a savior or the significant piece to the puzzle that he turned out to be in Washington. Once he got acclimated and was placed on the left side of a pairing with John Carlson last spring, everything meshed with that duo and the remainder of the team's defense corps.

Washington obviously went on to win the Stanley Cup, and it's difficult to envision that happening without the addition of Kempny. Once the Cup was hoisted and the parade was over, Kempny opted to stay in Washington, signing a four-year deal here.

This season, Kempny has improved his game even more, skating just over 19 minutes a night, racking up 25 points (six goals, 19 assists) and leading the team with a plus-24 rating. But Kempny suffered a lower body injury in Wednesday's game with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and will be lost to the team indefinitely.

"I'd say we are going to have to be without him for an indefinite amount of time right now," said Caps coach Todd Reirden. "We're just getting some more tests before we can make an official time statement on that. But I would just say right now that indefinitely he is out of our lineup."

That being the case, Christian Djoos will step into Kempny's spot on Carlson's left side on Friday night against Minnesota as the Caps head into the final eight games of the regular season.

"That opportunity for Christian is first and foremost tonight for him," says Reirden. "It's a great opportunity; I've seen those two play together before. I thought he had a strong game [Tuesday] against New Jersey, and this is why we have the depth that we do. We will put him in that situation tonight, but it's going to be probably a little bit of a committee as you move forward depending on the game.

"A lot of times during the game, the number of penalties helps sway things in a certain way, one way or the other. Obviously, we will miss Michal. He has been a really good player for us in the playoffs last year, and he has had a strong regular season pushing his numbers to career highs and stuff. Hopefully we can get some better news on that, but for now Christian will be starting there and like I said, expect to see some movement in those spots as well."

Kempny has proven to be an ideal partner for Carlson. Both players have thrived alongside one another and both are in the midst of career seasons. It's difficult to predict which pieces might fit best with one another on forward lines or defensive pairings, but the Kempny-Carlson duo has been getting it done for more than a calendar year now, virtually continuously.

"I don't have a great answer," says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, asked why the fit has been so good with the two blueliners. "His skill set must match up well with how Carly likes to play. Kemps skates really well, covers a lot of ice and defends really well. He is not an overly big guy, but he gets his nose in there and defends hard. I think he is just a reliable guy that can move the puck efficiently with John, too. That's John's game; create turnovers with his size and reach, and then transition the puck quickly and be part of the offense.

"They read off each other really well, when to jump into holes and when to cover for each other. They defend well together as a pair and work in unison. They must just read off each other well, and Kemps' skills set meshes with how John plays."

Carlson has spent a fair amount of time with Djoos, too. The two formed a partnership for much of last season prior to the trade that brought Kempny to D.C.

"He's a good defender," says Carlson of Kempny. "He's got great speed and he is a good attacker I would say, on defense. He takes away time and space really well and is a guy who really stepped it up in the offensive department too, this year. We're surely going to miss him."

Djoos doesn't have Kempny's strength or physicality, but he's a good skater with excellent hockey sense who manages the puck well and uses his head extremely well to compensate for any physical shortcomings.

"Not having to communicate is a big thing," says Carlson. "Fortunately for me, Djoos could be the smartest hockey player in this room altogether - that's everyone. We have had stints [together] when Nisky went down; at the beginning and middle of last year we played a lot together and we always kind of sneak in shifts here and there with him this season as well. So I feel comfortable with him; that's not an issue for me. I think we know each other pretty well."

That said, Carlson is also excited to have Djoos on his left side.

"I think Christian is a great player," says Carlson. "He adds different dimensions to the game than Kemps does, and we'll get to see that more now. I've played with him before; I'm looking forward to it again. I think we've got depth, and I think no one is replaceable. But the talent and how everyone can work together, we have proven in the past - and this year alone - when guys are out of the lineup, people have stepped up and filled voids. So that's what we'll be looking forward to doing tonight."

That "next man up" mentality has served the Caps well over the last few seasons, and fortunately, they haven't had to deal with a lot of lengthy injury absences.

"You never know," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. "The team that goes into the playoffs, it could be different in the first round or the second round. We had a number of different guys coming in and out throughout the whole playoffs. Nicky [Backstrom] and [Andre Burakovsky] and myself were out and [Nathan Walker] and [Shane Gersich] were in. You've just got to go out there with a belief in the group that is going onto the ice, and you can make good things happen.

"Kemper has had a heck of a year," says Niskanen. "He has played really well for us, and he played really well last spring. I don't know the details of how long he is out, but it hurts a little to have him out. But Djooser is very capable. He played with a ton of confidence last spring and he has been doing his thing this year. He is very confident with the puck, he is efficient, and for a young guy he's got quite a bit of experience already. He will jump right in there and do well for us."

Kempny suffered a lower body injury along the boards near the Washington bench while engaged in a post-whistle kerfuffle with Lightning center Cedric Paquette. Kempny is tougher than a school cafeteria steak; his face has been a magnet for pucks and sticks all season, but he has played through all of those ailments. Seeing him being helped down the tunnel, you knew this was something far more serious.

"It's tough," says Wilson. "The emotion is high when it's going down. I was sitting on the bench and he kind of looked up at me, and you could tell that something was wrong. You get that sick feeling in your stomach that he may be hurt. It sucks, but at the end of the day, that's part of the game. Anytime you put the equipment on, you're aware that it's going to be a physical game. That's the nature of the sport, so stuff can happen.

"But you definitely rally around a guy like that. It was great to see guys get in there and defend him. It was a high emotion game and it's never easy when you lose a guy, especially a guy like that, who battles so hard and works so hard every single day. But we will rally around it and continue to move forward."

Djoos missed about two months of this season himself, going down with a lower body injury in mid-December and returning shortly after the All-Star break. Since the acquisition of Nick Jensen last month, Djoos has been a healthy scratch far more than he has been in the lineup, but he has played 100 regular season games in the league, as well as 22 playoff games as a rookie, helping the Caps to their first Stanley Cup title.

As the Caps navigate their way through Kempny's absence, one thing to keep an eye on is the distribution of ice time. Kempny was playing 19:11 per game this season, while Djoos averaged 14:02 last season and 13:08 thus far in 2018-19. His minutes were dialed down to 10:51 per night in the playoffs last spring.

"It might just distribute the minutes more evenly, depending on how the game goes and whether there is a lot of special teams," says Niskanen. "Johnny was at a real high number last game because of all the special teams. But ideally you get everybody in that 17 to 23 [minute] range, and I think that's optimal for everyone to play with pace and a lot of compete. It just depends on how the game goes, but Djooser is capable. The good thing about him is he moves the puck so well that his minutes tend to be easier than a lot of guys' because his breakouts are so good. He seems to never turn it over. He always makes the right play."

Djoos is beloved among his teammates, and they have full faith in his ability to step in and do the job for however long Kempny is out of the lineup.

"Djooser is a pretty special player," says Wilson. "We are always excited when he is in the lineup because he can see stuff that no one else can see. We are fortunate to have him jumping in. We will have a little bit of a different dynamic with that group obviously; they're a different group. But it's the time of year when you need every piece to step up and different guys might be a different hero on any given night."

Heroes are important at this time of year, and they aren't always easily identified. No one saw Kempny as the integral piece he became when he was acquired from the Blackhawks, but he has established himself as a key piece of this team both now and in the seasons ahead. He got an opportunity here in Washington, and he certainly made the most of it. 

It's possible that Djoos or another defenseman within the organization could have a similar impact this spring.

"At this time of year, you never know what is going to help you win a championship," notes Wilson. "Last year, you trade for Kempny and you don't really know, and then it works out that he was such a great fit. A lot of stuff changes, and guys come in and guys come out, and all of those little decisions when you look back on them, some make a big difference and some don't.

"When something like that happens, you go out there and you try to make the best of it, and sometimes it works out. So we will have a little bit of a different look, and you can't replace a guy like that. But whatever group goes out there, we are fortunate to have guys ready to step in and help the team. It sucks when you lose a guy that battles like he does - that guy is made for playoff hockey in every way."

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