It wasn’t a surprise that Steve Eminger started the 2002-03 season with the Washington Capitals. And it wasn’t a surprise that the newly drafted 18-year-old inclusion on the NHL roster left the Kitchener Rangers upset.
The Ontario Hockey League team had been counting on the return of the solid defenseman, who scored 19 goals the previous season. At an age when the defenseman could have been on the ice 30 minutes a game in junior hockey, instead he was getting only six to eight minutes in the NHL.
The Rangers weren’t upset for long. Since he was drafted 12th overall in 2002, Eminger has bounced back and forth — from the Caps to the Kitchener Rangers to the Portland Pirates to the Caps. He has returned to Washington, and there is little doubt he is here to stay.
“It’s not an easy thing to go from the NHL down to the American [Hockey] League and bounce back and forth,” general manager George McPhee said when asked to assess Eminger’s somewhat lackluster season last year in Portland during the lockout. “That’s why we like to have our players in one place and keep them there.”
Eminger, who turned 22 on Monday, is averaging 221/2 minutes of ice time a game, with only veteran defenders Jamie Heward (25:50) and Brendan Witt (23:32) playing more. And his average continues to inch upward as he shows an offensive ability that up to now had been hidden at the NHL level.
In 11 games this season, Eminger has two goals and nine points, second best on the team, and has been credited with three two-point games thus far. Better yet as far as the team is concerned, his defensive plus-minus rating is plus-6, excellent on a team that is three games under .500.
“He has simplified his game,” said goalie Olie Kolzig, who has watched Eminger since he arrived three years ago. “The first year he was here he tried to make too many plays in his own end. Now he’s simplified things. He’s playing with a lot more confidence and maturity, and the latter plays a huge role.”
Said assistant coach Jay Leach, who also coached Eminger last season in Portland: “Maturity is the biggest thing. He is expected to play well after being here a few years, and now he’s putting expectations on himself. He understands that if he keeps his concentration level high, he’ll be really, really good. I’ll tell you how good he is — he could teach power skating.”
Eminger feels the difference in his game is that he believes others have the confidence in him that he has always had in himself.
“Right from day one this year [coach Glen Hanlon] has given me the freedom to get in there on offense and get out for defense if the play wasn’t there, so there’s more freedom,” Eminger said. “Years past, when I got over the blue line, I kind of felt lost, like I didn’t belong. I wasn’t seeing the ice very well, but this year I’m seeing things a lot better.”
And he’s not alone. Eminger is among a group of young defenders the Caps assembled after the fire sale of 2003-04 that they hope will shore the blue line up for years to come.
“They’re playing very well,” McPhee said. “Not only have they not hurt us, they’ve helped us. They’re smart young players who are getting better week by week, and that’s part of the plan — play young guys and live with some of the mistakes. But the truth is there haven’t been many mistakes. They’ve been pretty darn good” as a group.
Having a complete home-grown defense is something the Caps have never had, at least not one they would brag about.
“It looks good right now,” McPhee said. “That would be an area we wouldn’t have to worry about for some time, and it could be the strength of the organization. If you’re good on the blue line, you’ll win. You’re in every game. We’re pretty happy with the way things are going in that area.”
Just as Kitchener was happy when Eminger returned for the remainder of the 2002-03 season. He led the Rangers to the Memorial Cup championship, the Stanley Cup of junior hockey in Canada.