Michal Kempny notched 15 points (3g, 12a) in 81 games in two seasons for the Chicago Blackhawks after spending his first few years of pro eligibility playing in Europe in his native Czech Republic.
It was a struggle for Kempny to fit in, find a role and ice time on a more consistent basis in Chicago, but that all changed with a trade that he says saved his career.
When the Capitals traded for Kempny on Feb. 19, they envisioned the underused defenseman benefitting from a new environment and providing Washington with a boost in the playoffs. They liked his skating ability, impressive especially for a guy at his position.
After solidifying the Capitals defense in the playoffs last year, Kempny's become a greater scoring threat in 2018-19.
Through 38 games, he's nearly matched his point total from his first two years (15 this season, 18 in the last two combined), inching towards the mark on Sunday with the game-winner in the Capitals 3-2 win in Detroit.
"I think I'm more comfortable in the system and with how we play," Kempny said of his first 10 months in Washington. "I feel loose in the offensive zone, trying to find a spot on the flank and get some pucks to the net." And he is, with 60 shots this year, well on pace to break his career high (67).
"We play a completely different system [and] I like playing in the offensive zone," he said. "Just being able to do what I want."
The Capitals felt rewarded by the move then, only to learn later that the 27-year old was just getting started. His skating and puck-handling have translated to offensive numbers. Kempny's scored five goals in the first 38 games of 2018-19, matching his total after his first 103 career games. Three have come in the Capitals last seven contests, and his three game-winning goals are tied for the most in the NHL.
"When he was traded [last February] he was playing great, but it seems like he's finding more scoring area," said John Carlson, his primary ice partner. "Maybe it's just about getting used to everyone around him. But I thought he played great last year, and he's certainly carried it over to this season."
The success has earned into more time on the ice, too. He's skated an average 20:08 minutes over the last 19 games, up from 18:34 through his first 19 of the season.
"I think with consistency comes confidence," Carlson said. "That's big for any position or player in the league. Once he found his consistency, knowing that he's going to be in a certain spot, and with [more] playing time and a [specific] role, he settled in."
Carlson's aided Kempny's rise, said Capitals coach Todd Reirden. Players need to be placed in the right situation. And that combo - a skilled skater and a Norris hopeful - has thrived. With 469:57 together this season at five-on-five, the duo has an on-ice goals for percentage of 66.00 percent (33 for, 17 against).
"He and John have been great - they're the right pairing," Reirden said. "[Kempny] continues to grow and get better. They take care of each other, a good complement for one another."
Added assistant coach Reid Cashman, who primarily works with defensemen, "I think he and John have great chemistry. John's a great guy to play with, but Kemp also works extremely hard at his craft, whether it's in the weight room or watching video. He's really committed and deserves a lot of credit for the success he's having."
Kempny deflected credit away from himself, instead praising his teammates for creating an easy environment to succeed. He's just grateful to have found the right role.
"When I came to the NHL, nobody knew about me," Kempny said. "I just tried to get some respect here and hopefully I'm on the right way."
His first 10 months, spanning over two seasons, suggest he's on the right way.
"It's been fun to watch, fun to be a part of," Reirden said of Kempny's development. "When I met Michal, it was a difference circumstance, when we were trying to figure out if he could play for our team or not. He was coming from a non-playoff team and had been scratched a few times. We did our research and came to an agreement that he'd be our No. 1 guy [at the trade deadline]. To know that it would turn out like this, I can't say anyone would've predicted that. Certainly, we got great signals during our Stanley Cup run.
"I still feel like there's room for even more growth in his game," Reirden said. "So I'm looking forward to working with him the next few years."