NHL Power Rankings: How good are the Capitals without Michal Kempny? originally appeared on nbcsportswashington.com
It seems crazy to think that 13 months ago, practically no one in Washington knew who Michal Kempny was. Now we are wondering whether the Capitals can win without him.
That's what a Stanley Cup run will do for a player.
Washington struggled all season in 2017-18 to find a partner for John Carlson. Individually he was having a phenomenal season, worth of more Norris attention than he ultimately received. In terms of the defensive pairs, however, the Caps just could not seem to find a partner that complimented him. Then the team traded for a little-known defenseman from the Chicago Blackhawks and the rest is history.
We do not yet know how long Kempny will be out. Todd Reirden has said he will be out "indefinitely" but has not given a definitive timetable. We do not know if Kempny could come back for the playoffs or is done for the season, but at the very least it seems possible he will not be ready for the start of the playoffs. That means Washington has to find a way to win without him.
Reirden got out the blender on Sunday and went through just about every defensive combination he could think of in the game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Washington is still locked in a tight race for the division, but Reirden is going to have to use the last few games of the season to figure out the best combinations to use in case Kempny does not return.
It's not easy to replace a top-pairing defenseman, but that is the reality that is staring the Caps in the face right now.
Here are a few recent observations and thoughts on the Caps:
Christian Djoos did a great job not letting his size be an issue last season in the playoffs last season. In his first two games back in the lineup in place of Michal Kempny, he did not do nearly as well with that. He was pushed around in front of the net by Minnesota and to some degree against Philadelphia as well. That makes it difficult for him to play with a partner like Carlson who is quick to go up ice to join the offense. He may be better off playing alongside Brooks Orpik so long as Orpik knows he can't pinch in the neutral zone as much as he typically does.
Reirden also experimented with the offensive lines on Sunday. While I do not think he will stray too much from his normal lineup to start the playoffs, there are some intriguing possibilities he can turn to if the team needs a spark. I like how Jakub Vrana and Brett Connolly looked together and I have always loved the chemistry Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie have. Having a speed line of Vrana and Andre Burakovsky is a good potential weapon as well, though I think that line would only really work with Nicklas Backstrom at center or I could easily see it becoming a defensive liability.
The Caps have two power play goals in their last 19 opportunities. The first problem has been zone entries. When the puck is cleared, they struggle to get it back in. The slingshot is atrocious, it doesn't work and it needs to go away. When the Caps go fast up ice and simply attack, they have a much easier time getting into the zone than they do with the slow, methodical slingshot which everyone sees coming a mile away. If Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov is standing behind Carlson, it's not hard to figure out that Carlson is going to turn around and pass it back. Get rid of it. The second problem is that teams are going all in on stopping Ovechkin. Everyone knows he is two goals away from 50. There's no more pretense to it, they are doing everything they can to stop getting him the puck whether it be having a defenseman guard him or putting a wall in the passing lane to prevent getting the puck to him, but the Caps are still trying to force him the puck. Kuznetsov and Backstrom have got to take advantage of the extra room they are being afforded and shoot more. That will force teams to account for them opening up more room to Ovechkin.
I have seen a lot of players work on their deflections at practice and the work seems to be paying off. Brett Connolly scored a deflection against Minnesota, and Tom Wilson and Travis Boyd both scored deflections against Philadelphia. Having said that, I do not want to see this team become a low to high team where they get the puck down low and always look back to the blue line for the shot. Those are very low percentage opportunities. If that's the only option, great, go for it, but that should not replace trying to get the puck into high danger areas with settling for point shots. This team won the Stanley Cup last season by emphasizing quality over quantity. Don't change that now.
Even without Kempny, the Caps still look like one of the teams to beat for the Cup.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS:
Caps-Flyers: Washington escapes with ugly win Sunday
Bunch of Jerks: Kuznetsov latest to face Don Cherry's criticism