The preseason usually runs fairly smoothly for most NHL teams. It’s a time of year to get prospects and fringe players ice time in amongst the established NHLers, and ease them back into competition.
Results don’t mean a huge amount, and a lot of the time many of the players we see suit up disappear back into the AHL or even lower to continue their development while the “established” players or top prospects prepare for the season.
For free agents signed from European leagues, too, this is usually the chance to show what they’ve got and to compete for an AHL top job, while adding a few NHL preseason games to their resumé. Rarely do we see teams take flyers on players signed from European leagues, especially those already rejected as draft picks by another team.
In Arizona this year, though, we might be seeing a Cinderella story in the making in Mario Kempe.
The 5’11, 180lb brother of LA Kings first-round pick Adrian Kempe, was a signing that made few ripples when he signed a one-year deal from the KHL’s Vityaz Podolsk after time in Sweden this summer, but he’s lit up the preseason with three goals so far and impressive play in all areas of the ice.
He’s been noticed by the Coyotes coaching staff, too, surviving several rounds of cuts when players who’ve spent longer in North America or were arguably ahead of him in the pecking order initially (most notably, perhaps, Nick Merkley). He’s even managed to kickstart Coyotes’ top enigma Dylan Strome into action - the line of Strome, Kempe and Anthony Duclair scored 4 points as a trio against the Ducks in Tucson.
Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet is already a fan, saying that Kempe is “playing like someone who wants to be here”. His speed and offensive skills have impressed the Coyotes staff and seem to fit into the type of game they want to play across all four lines perhaps better than names like Nick Cousins and, arguably, Strome and Merkley.
In that respect, Kempe could follow players like Damien Brunner, the Swiss forward who was signed as a Euro free agent by the Red Wings in 2012 and proceeded to become one of the quietly underrated stars of the team that season, becoming known as a shootout star and scoring 12 goals in regular season play and 11 the year after.
Brunner ended up struggling and eventually dropping out of the league in New Jersey after refusing repeated contract offers from the Wings, but it’s to be hoped Kempe won’t go the same way - certainly his attitude and career history argues otherwise, with him being a valued role-player during his time in both Sweden and the KHL. There is also, of course, the argument that he’s several years older than Brunner was and perhaps more mature in his approach to things.
With the final round of cuts coming, nothing is assured, and there is still a good chance that Kempe could start the season in Tucson rather than up with the big club - however, he’s already made his mark in Arizona in a way that even the most optimistic probably didn’t expect when they signed him and is likely going to see some NHL time this season based upon it. That alone makes his signing a great success.
If he continues to contribute in the regular season in the way he has during the preseason, it’ll be even better, and add to the Yotes forward depth in the bottom six in a way that they’ve perhaps not had in a while.
We’ve seen many tales in the NHL over the years of players plucked from obscurity to become key members of their teams, although most of the time its role players stepping up or AHLers seizing their chance - seeing European free-agents become key contributors (at least those not returning with a previous history within the NHL) is much rarer, although it’s starting to become more common.
Mario Kempe is well set to be the latest Chayka success story - if he is, it’s a testament to both his efforts and the Arizona scouting and coaching staff for finding him and giving him a chance when many NHL teams wouldn’t. That alone is a reason to root for his rise to continue.
Stay tuned for a sit-down interview with Mario Kempe on Monday here at Five For Howling.