The Chicago Blackhawks targeted defenseman Michal Kempny from the beginning of the 2016 offseason. A solid player in the KHL, the Blackhawks decided to attempt to strike magic again after adding Artemi Panarin from the Russia-based league in the spring of 2015.
And guess what? I think it might’ve worked.
Kempny is no Panarin, and that should be clear to anyone paying attention. The Blackhawks’ signing of Panarin was a lightning-in-a-bottle move, the likes of which are so rare you can hardly plan for them. Players of Panarin’s caliber are not supposed to be available as undrafted free agents in their early 20s.
That’s not what’s happened with Kempny. But the Blackhawks turned to the 26-year-old hoping to uncover a solid top-four defenseman who could play their puck-moving system with aplomb. The first few weeks of the season have indicated that he’s at least solid, and might even be pretty dang good.
One of the biggest things the Blackhawks needed from their new defensemen this season was strong puck possession. The team took a big step back in that area last season partially because its blue liners were less adept at making the clean zone entries that are crucial to the system.
That’s where Kempny thrives. He’s been a puck-driving machine during 5-on-5 play, to the extent that his numbers are among the best in the entire NHL.
Here are the top five defensemen in score and venue adjusted 5-on-5 Corsi for the season (minimum 225 minutes played) via Natural Stat Trick. This statistic shows the shot attempt differential when both teams are playing with five men, and it’s adjusted for score (teams take more shots when they’re trailing) and venue (home teams take more shots).
- Brett Pesce, Carolina — 57.06 percent
- MICHAL KEMPNY, Chicago — 56.41 percent
- Alec Martinez, LA — 56.12 percent
- Jake Muzzin, LA — 56.01 percent
- Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis -- 55.89 percent
It’s certainly not the only thing that matters, but Kempny’s ability to play a strong possession game during even strength play — which is generally most of each contest — makes him a valuable asset.
He didn’t record his first point of the season until Friday night with an assist against Calgary, so he’s not a real scoring option. He never plays on the power play given the Blackhawks’ wealth of talented offensive defensemen, but that also shows why he’s so important. He’s a steady defensive blue liner on a team full of guys who like to make plays and take risks. Kempny plays it a bit safer, and that change of pace can be useful.
It’s clearly helped in his pairing with Brent Seabrook. The veteran defenseman had a down season in 2015-16 (other than stellar performance on the power play) and really needed to rebound in the first year of a monster eight-year contract. Chicago is at its best when its key d-men are effective in all phases of the game, and Seabrook had trouble with that when he was playing next to Trevor van Riemsdyk or Viktor Svedberg.
Kempny has been a rock for Seabrook. When the two play together, they have a 5-on-5 Corsi of 55.6 percent. Seabrook’s 5-on-5 Corsi without Kempny this season is 52 percent. Kempny’s without Seabrook is a healthy 58.8 percent. But that’s easily been the Blackhawks’ best defensive pairing over the past couple weeks, and that’s encouraging if the team can figure out how to get everyone else going, too. I thought Brian Campbell would be the guy to help Seabrook settle back in, but it turns out Kempny was the man for the job.
Maybe this makes it easier to trade Seabrook in the long run. At the very least, having the defenseman playing at a higher level at even strength than last season makes his $6.875 million cap hit much more palatable for now.
Bowman strikes again
Kempny is proving to be a really shrewd signing by Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, which actually shouldn’t be too shocking given how much effort the franchise has put into pursuing undrafted free agents recently. The obvious name to talk about is Panarin, but he’s not the only one. They signed defensemen Trevor van Riemsdyk and Erik Gustafsson that way. And one of Chicago’s most interesting prospects, Alexandre Fortin, was inked just months ago as an undrafted free agent.
Kempny may not be Panarin, but he’s another great find by Chicago for a team without a ton of options. They couldn’t pursue expensive free agents, and even if they wanted to make a major trade, most of their key players have no-movement clauses. They haven’t had high draft picks to reload the system with elite prospects, either. So the Blackhawks keep leaning on creativity and great scouting to fill their depth behind the core.
Sometimes it doesn’t work so well, like when the Blackhawks pushed TVR into a top-four role last season that he clearly wasn’t ready for. They’ve tried it again with Kempny, though, and the results are looking much better. Kempny is a restricted free agent after the season, when the Panarin Payday Pizza Party goes down, so his future with the team isn’t locked down long-term. Guys usually don’t get too much in RFA if they only have one year of experience, though, so Kempny’s price shouldn’t be prohibitive.
And right now, he’s looking like a keeper. The top priority for the offseason needs to be re-signing Panarin, but based on early signs, getting Kempny back in the fold on an affordable deal will be another goal. He’s been just what the Blackhawks needed from him.