Michal Kempny is not Artemi Panarin. Let’s get that out of the way first.
It’s unrealistic and unfair to expect Kempny to have the same kind of instant impact and spectacular rookie season that Panarin had when he made the jump from the KHL to the NHL. Few ever have. But Kempny — a 25-year-old Czech defenseman — is not coming to Chicago to wait and learn, either. He’s here to play in the NHL right away.
“I don’t want to disclose what was said to me, whether I’m going to play or not,” Kempny said through an interpreter when asked if the Hawks had guaranteed him a roster spot when he signed in May. “But I’m here to prove that I can play in the NHL. I’m here to play in the NHL, because it was my dream for so long. I’m here to work myself to the ‘A’ team.”
The signings of Kempny and veteran Brian Campbell have turned the Hawks’ biggest weakness into a strength. With Campbell likely to be on the second pairing with Brent Seabrook, the Hawks’ third pairing likely will be Kempny and Trevor van Riemsdyk — a significant step up from the rookie rotation that occupied that pairing for much of last season. This is, of course, assuming Kempny is everything the Hawks think he is.
Kempny, a self-described late bloomer who never was drafted, had five goals and 16 assists in 59 games with Omsk last season, his first in the KHL after six seasons in the Czech Republic. His big season drew interest from several NHL teams. But once the Hawks entered the picture, Kempny decided Chicago was the best place to be.
“I’m very glad I’m here,” Kempny said. “I was targeted by Chicago. I think Chicago likes defensemen who skate a lot and who are very creative, and I think that’s my style.”
His late arrival at prospects camp — at 25, he’s significantly older than the rest of the prospects at Johnny’s IceHouse West — is the first chance for most of the Hawks’ staff to see him in person. But general manager Stan Bowman is confident that Kempny can step in immediately.
“We’re very high on Michal Kempny,” Bowman said. “Everything’s new to him over here now. He has one year in the KHL and he did great his first year there, and we’re hoping he has a great transition to the NHL, as well. [Including Campbell], you put all that together, and our defense is looking very, very strong. It’s a strong point of our team right now.”
Kempny will face many of the same issues Panarin did in his first season — dealing with the smaller rinks, the faster and more physical NHL style, and the language barrier. Kempny said he never took English in school, and has been working with tutors over the summer to learn the language. He speaks a little and understands some, but likely will lean on countryman Michal Rozsival — back on another one-year contract — in the early going, much like Panarin relied on Viktor Tikhonov and then Artem Anisimov.
“I’m here to do my best,” Kempny said. “I’m going to try to make it to the ‘A’ team. I’m very glad Artemi was also successful, and I’m going to try to follow him.”
NOTE: Second-round pick Alex DeBrincat has been impressive so far at prospects camp. Despite his small stature (he’s listed at 5-7 and 165 pounds) he’s tough to knock off the puck, and he has a quick release that helped him score 51 goals in each of the last two seasons with the OHL’s Erie Otters. A native of the Detroit suburbs, he quickly renounced his Red Wings fandom. As for his family?
“They’re working on it, I think,” DeBrincat said. “It was pretty easy for them, too, but I think my dad right have a little bit of trouble with it.”