In what may seem like a minor signing, the Chicago Blackhawks inked defenseman Michal Kempny to a one-year deal Saturday. But this contract is more important than a simple bit-player signing.
What was your reaction when you saw the Chicago Blackhawks had re-signed defenseman Michal Kempny to a one-year deal worth $900,000 on Saturday morning? If it was indifference, that’s OK. It’s not as though Kempny lit the world on fire in his first NHL season.
But I’m here to tell you this is an important signing for the Blackhawks. Kempny’s signing indicates Stan Bowman and Co. are actually paying attention to what happened in this year’s first-round playoff exit against Nashville, and that they’re willing to work from within to fix it.
The Blackhawks were summarily thrown from the postseason in just four games as the Predators’ forwards swarmed the Blackhawks’ defensemen at every turn. It certainly wasn’t the only reason the Blackhawks lost, but it was a glaring one.
Meanwhile, one of the Blackhawks’ fleetest-of-foot D-men, Kempny, rode the press box pine more often than not. He saw just one game of action and played less than nine minutes.
This was a trend that carried over from the regular season, when Kempny could hardly hold down a spot in the lineup. Yet, the Blackhawks have inked him to another contract. So that says something about the direction this team’s defense should be heading.
What Kempny brings to the table
The Czech Republic native was one of the few Blackhawks defensemen this season who could actually move with the puck, and move quickly. Duncan Keith‘s knees are clearly aging. Niklas Hjalmarsson is not much of a puck mover. Brent Seabrook, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Michal Rozsival can hardly move. Brian Campbell is a puck mover who just turned 38. And Gustav Forsling is still finding himself at the NHL level.
That means Kempny actually has a really important job for this Blackhawks team right now. And after this early playoff exit, the hope would be this is a sign from Bowman to coach Joel Quenneville to actually play the 26-year-old moving forward.
It was Kempny’s first season on North American ice, so you couldn’t blame him for having adjustment struggles. But the constant yanking for every wrong move, akin to Nick Schmaltz at times, was just brutal to Kempny’s development in his first NHL season.
He still possessed the puck at a better clip than anyone else on the defense, posting a 56.66 Corsi-for at even strength. He fired 67 shots on net in just 50 regular-season games. And his zone starts weren’t as wildly sheltered as you might think, checking in at 53.5 percent beginning in the offensive end.
So there’s a lot of upside to tap into here, especially when you consider Kempny should be entering his prime hockey years now, is getting a vote of confidence in the form of a new contract and will have a year of North American hockey under his belt heading into 2017-18.
Are there kinks to work out with Kempny? Most certainly. He still seems uncomfortable in board battles. His takeaways to giveaways ratio was a hideous 6:26 last season. But he’s also a guy who can physically move the puck out of dangerous situations, versus just ringing it around the boards or flying it up the middle of the ice (these ideas fed Nashville’s offense in the playoffs).
Kempny actually seems most comfortable when he has the puck in open ice. This is a great thing for Chicago, especially on the blue line. It should give the Blackhawks an alternative to Keith’s puck-moving ways, which took a ding as Keith slowed some this season.
So I’m pleased the Blackhawks re-signed Kempny. At a low cost, he’s a positive addition to this team’s defense, a clear sign Bowman recognizes one thing that went horribly wrong in these playoffs. It’s an answer from within, instead of trying to go beyond for a D-man. We know how well that’s worked in recent seasons.