- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Steve Eminger languished in hockey purgatory - on the team but not in the lineup - for most of last season because the Washington Capitals carried eight defensemen and rarely was more than one hurt.

The circumstances couldn’t be more different this season. The Caps began the year with only six defensemen - a byproduct of Eminger’s situation last year, salary cap restraints and Sergei Fedorov’s versatility.

Twenty-three games into the season, Washington already has used 10 defensemen, and that number swells to 12 counting the games played by Fedorov on the blue line and the two contests in which Brooks Laich took a couple of emergency shifts there.

“We had eight last year, and you carry eight because you think you’ll have some injuries, and when it doesn’t happen it is really frustrating for the player who is sitting out all the time and the coaching staff,” general manager George McPhee said. “So we go with fewer this year, and this is the year we get banged up. But the guys who have come up and played for the veterans have done a nice job.”

The Caps have been besieged by injuries, and the situation isn’t getting better in the short term. On Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers at Verizon Center, Washington is likely to be without seven or possibly eight players who were on the opening night roster.

But those injuries have not been accompanied by a precipitous fall in the standings; they have afforded opportunities to other players and have given the Caps a chance to showcase their organizational depth. Prospects like Chris Bourque, Karl Alzner and Sami Lepisto have been given a look in the NHL; veterans Graham Mink and Bryan Helmer have earned returns.

Five injured players - Fedorov, Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Tom Poti and Chris Clark - skated before practice Monday. Fedorov, Green and Semin joined their teammates for the official workout.

“It has been tough,” said defenseman Shaone Morrisonn, one of only two of the team’s original six defensemen currently healthy. “We need everybody right now, and the guys that have been called up have played well.”

Jeff Schultz, who like Clark is ineligible to play until Dec. 19, Boyd Gordon and John Erskine did not practice. Gordon is the only one of the eight that coach Bruce Boudreau listed as questionable; he isn’t banking on having any of the others against the Panthers.

Bourque was sent back to Hershey for a game Sunday and was not back in Arlington for practice Monday. The Caps will need to call up at least one forward Tuesday - possibly two if Gordon cannot play.

“All organizations try to make sure they have depth,” McPhee said. “We just happen to think we’ve done a really good job with it recently in the veterans that we bring have worked in Hershey. All teams can do that, but what separated us from other clubs or other years for us is the young kids we have in Hershey have become really good players.”

Added Boudreau: “We’ve got so many guys down there playing so well, it is really making it hard. They’ve got a plethora of good players.”

Impressive depth in the system has helped the Caps continue to stay competitive. Washington’s need to pillage Hershey for reinforcements also hasn’t had much of an effect. The Bears are in the midst of a nine-game winning streak and remain atop the American Hockey League. While Mink and Bourque already have been called upon, there are plenty of other options to choose from as well.

There are veterans like Keith Aucoin, who leads the AHL in points with 36, and Alexandre Giroux, who is the top goal scorer with 17. The Caps know they can count on Quintin Laing after his performance for them last season.

If the Caps want to add more youth, there are guys like Andrew Gordon (17 points) and Kyle Wilson (18) and AHL rookies Oskar Osala (16), Mathieu Perreault (22) and Francois Bouchard (18). McPhee did say Osala is not likely to be one of the recalls.

“We’re excited to give some of these young guys a chance,” he said. “We just don’t want to have to do it all at once.”

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