Judging by the wrath of the message board mavens, the Washington Capitals should be about ready to kick defenseman Steve Eminger to the curb. Why? Maybe because at the age of 23, Eminger is greying at the temples and should be 86ed in favor of younger prospects with more upside. Maybe because after parts of four NHL seasons he should already be an NHL All-Star. Maybe because with fewer than 200 games played in the NHL, it is already plain to see that there’s no way he’ll ever play another 200.
Take your pick. Me, I think it would be a mistake to get rid of Eminger unless he is traded in a deal where the return is too good to refuse. And if that happens, it won’t be an unprecedented event. Plenty of defensemen chosen in the top 30 have been cut loose by their original NHL organizations with fewer games played than Eminger, only to go on to long and prosperous NHL careers elsewhere.
Stephane Quintal, Bryan Marchment, Kevin Haller, Drake Berehowsky, Karl Dykhuis, Jiri Slegr, Aaron Ward, Philippe Boucher, Jassen Cullimore, Sandis Ozolinsh, Jason Smith, Boris Mironov, Chris Pronger, Oleg Tverdovsky, Bryan Berard, Wade Redden, Cory Sarich, Robyn Regehr were all top 30 choices who moved on and went on to play (or will play) more than 500 games in the league. Others like Branislav Mezei, Ron Hainsey, Shaone Morrisonn, Tim Gleason, Lukas Krajicek, and Keith Ballard are decent bets to join that list.
Eminger was chosen 12th overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. Over the years, plenty of defensemen have been chosen in the top 30 (there are 30 choices in the first round of the draft these days). Some have panned out well, some not at all and, as noted above, others have panned out well after having been traded by the team that originally drafted them. From 1987 through 2002 (that’s 16 Entry Drafts) a total of 161 defensemen have been chosen in the top 30 selections of the draft. With 190 NHL games played, Eminger has already played more contests in the league than more than one-third of those 161 blueliners. If he can play another season of say, 70 games next season, he’ll have half the careers of those 161 beat. Assuming of course, that the likes of John Slaney and Mathieu Biron don’t resurface in the NHL for another cup of coffee or so.
I guess because it has been almost five years since he was drafted, that it seems to some like Eminger has been here forever and that he’s an utter and abject failure as an NHL defenseman. People forget that he was 18 when he was drafted, and that he is still just a kid.
Has he had his ups and downs? Absolutely. Does he have issues with consistency? Sure. Have the Caps done their absolute best by him in terms of coaching, development, etc.? Tough question, and one that I’m not qualified to answer.
Here’s an idea, though. Get a veteran lefty-shooting defenseman and make him Eminger’s partner. It may be my imagination (but I don’t think so), but I believe Eminger has played his best hockey when paired with lefty-shooting vets like Calle Johansson and Brendan Witt. I’m not sure why Eminger should be expected to develop into a reliable 20-minute a night defenseman while playing alongside the likes of defenseman-turned-forward-turned-defenseman-with-a-sports-hernia-turned-forward-again Ben Clymer. Or John Erskine, who has played fewer NHL games than Eminger. Or Mike Green, who was drafted two years later and is two years younger. And those are just a few of the partners he’s had this year.
To me, Eminger has the physical tools needed for the job. He has good size, he skates well, has a decent enough shot, he’s smart enough, and can move the puck. He has his ups and he has his downs. I talked to a couple former NHL defensemen about Eminger, and they both agreed he would benefit from playing with a partner with 500 games or so of NHL experience. They’d know better than I.
We all know it takes defensemen a little bit longer to develop, but how long? Depends on some of the variables, I believe.
When the Bruins were looking to develop Kyle McLaren and Hal Gill, they paired them with Raymond Bourque. The Caps don’t have Raymond Bourque, or anyone of his ilk (who does?), but most teams pair a kid with a vet if they want results. Wonder why San Jose’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a plus-15 with 26 points while playing 22 minutes a night (more than any other rookie defenseman in the league) as a teenager (he turned 20 last week) in this league? Look across the ice. There’s Scott Hannan.
San Jose has another rookie defenseman, 22-year-old Matt Carle. He has 11 goals, 41 points and is plus-7 while playing nearly 19 minutes a night. Carle’s partner is Craig Rivet, a veteran of nearly 700 regular season NHL games. Not for nothing, but if you subtract power play scoring, Eminger has more points (16) than both Carle (15) and Vlasic (14). Sheldon Souray is going to make a boatload of cash this summer, but his minus-24 is far worse than Eminger’s minus-14, and they both have the same number of even-strength plus shorthanded points. Eminger is averaging nine seconds per game in power play ice time and 15:22 at even strength. Souray is playing 15:20 of even-strength hockey a night.
Eminger’s job title indicates that his primary responsibility is to keep the other team from scoring. But he has always been thought of as a guy who would evolve into a solid two-way blueliner in the Johansson mold. And to me, Eminger has evolved some. Despite seeing his ice time dwindle by about 10 percent this season, he has actually upped his even-strength plus shorthanded scoring. The talent is there.
Not too long ago, the Caps developed a couple of pretty fair (if vastly different) NHL defensemen who, like Eminger, were chosen in the middle of the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. Washington chose Sergei Gonchar with the 14th choice in the 1992 draft and Brendan Witt 11th overall in 1993. Like Eminger, both Gonchar and Witt received some minor league seasoning before making the NHL for good. Gonchar played 61 games and Witt 30 at the AHL level. Eminger played 103, a figure that might have been inflated by the season-long NHL lockout in 2004-05.
What’s the biggest difference between the development of Gonchar and Witt and that of Eminger? Joe Reekie and Johansson. Rather than pairing Gonchar and Witt with one another, the Caps put Gonchar with Reekie and Witt with Johansson. And for the most part, they left them like that. For good measure, the Caps also had the luxury of other veteran blueliners such as Sylvain Cote and Mark Tinordi in those days.
Hindsight is 20/20, but a signing a guy like Sean Hill last summer might have had a positive influence on some of the Caps’ young defensemen this season. It’s tough to bring along young blueliners when your most experienced NHL defenseman (Bryan Muir, 277 games) is frequently a healthy scratch and your second most experienced blueliner (Brian Pothier, 252 games) is in just his third full NHL season himself.
It’s hard (if not impossible) to develop an entire backline full of kids at the same time. Aside from the Caps, the two youngest NHL blueline corps in terms of NHL game experience are those of San Jose (see above) and Nashville. The Preds are an interesting case study. Only two teams in the entire NHL have no defenseman averaging more than 22 minutes a night. The Hurricanes are one of them (hell, Carolina has no defenseman averaging as many as 20 minutes a night, because the Canes often dress seven defenesemen), and Nashville is the other.
Kimmo Timonen (slated to achieve unrestricted free agency status this summer) leads the Preds with 21:50 a night. He is also the greybeard of the Nashville blueliners, with 571 games played, plus a few years pro in his native Finland. The Predators also have 30-year-old Marek Zidlicky, who, although he has just 226 games worth of NHL experience, played five seasons pro in his native Czech Republic.
Beyond those two, the Preds have a trio of highly prized young defensemen they’ve drafted and are in the process of developing. Nashville drafted Dan Hamhuis in the same slot the Caps grabbed Eminger (12th), but did so a year earlier (2001). Hamhuis is now in his third full season of NHL duty. The other two are both 2003 draftees: Ryan Suter (chosen seventh overall) and Shea Weber (49th). Suter is in his second full season in the league and Weber his first, although the latter did get a 28-game taste last season.
Early in the season, the Preds had rookie Greg Zanon (a fifth-round Ottawa choice in 2000) as their sixth defenseman. Zanon had played three seasons worth of AHL hockey. Just before the trade deadline, Nashville brought in veteran Vitaly Vishnevski in a deal with Atlanta. The interesting thing is that Zanon averages 17:11 this season while Vishnevski has skated only 10 minutes a night with Nashville after averaging 19 minutes a tilt with the Thrashers.
Pair righties with lefties. Offensive guys with stay-at-homers. Vets with kids. These have long been the tenets of building solid defensive pairs, and these are time-proven tactics that help young defensemen grow and develop, if they are good enough to grow and develop at this level. The Caps have gotten away from some of these in recent seasons. Doing so may ultimately be harming the development of players like Eminger and Green. Ask Green sometime about how helpful it was playing with the likes of seasoned pros Mark Wotton, Lawrence Nycholat and Dean Arsene during his time with the Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears last season.
Time will ultimately tell, as it always does. But let’s just hope that a team that has been crying for quality defensemen for a few seasons now does not get in the habit of letting good ones get away only to flourish elsewhere.
I’m not a scout or a coach, and I never will be a scout or a coach. But I am one of those people (and there don’t seem to be many of us) who still believes that Eminger is going to be a good NHL defenseman for several seasons to come.
The only question is where.