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Steve Eminger: Stud Or Stiff?

Caps blueliner Steve Eminger would be the first to tell you that he stunk on ice last night against Tampa (actually, I might be the first to tell you that and Steinberg might be the first to tell you that I'll tell you that, but I digress).

Through 29 games this season, Emmy, now in his third full NHL season, has no goals, five assists and a minus-8 plus/minus rating, putting him on pace for a 14 assist/minus-19 campaign, this on the heels of a five-goal, 13-assist, minus-12 season last year. Per TSN.ca's scouting report, Eminger "[h]as the tools to quarterback the power play," "[d]isplays plenty of offensive acumen," and "can also be a solid defender," but it's simply not translating on the ice. By most accounts, he has taken a big step backwards this year, and the numbers would seem to back that up (though he has played better since being paired with John Erskine).

Speaking of numbers, let's take a look at some, shall we? Currently, he's third among the team's defensemen in time-on-ice-per-game (18:22) and shorthanded ice time per game and getting next-to-no power play ice time. Contrast that with last year, where he was second among blueliners in TOI/G (21:20), third in SH TOI/G and actually got power play minutes. Obviously minutes are earned and not handed out like candy on Halloween and the signing of Brian Pothier and emergence of Mike Green have cut into Emmy's minutes as well, but part of the decrease in production is no doubt the result of the two-plus minutes of power play time per game that he has lost.

So how should we measure Eminger's progress (or lack thereof)? How about comparing Eminger to other blueliners drafted after back in 2002 (excluding top-five picks Jay Bouwmeester and Joni Pitkanen who are quite simply another level of defenseman). Because of the Caps' rebuild, Eminger has played more games than any of them and has outscored them all too (though Chicago's Duncan Keith is about to pass him [sidenote: never trust a man with two first names]). But is there a blueliner taken after Eminger that you'd rather have right now? Any Trevor Daley fans out there? Perhaps Keith, and I've heard good things about Grebeshkov, Babchuk and Koltsov, but haven't been impressed. Point being that it's too early to tell on these kids.

What about defensemen drafted in a similar spot in the draft? Here's a list of all the defensemen taken between tenth and 15th overall in the five years leading up to the 2002 draft (in which Eminger was taken 12th): Brad Ference, Branislav Mezei, Jeff Jillson, Ron Hainsey, Dan Hamhuis and Igor Knyazev. Do you see anyone there who Eminger can't be better than in the next one-to-five years? Maybe Hamhuis?

Emmy's points-per-game might not be where you'd like, but the experience he has gained in the NHL at such an early age should prove invaluable down the road. And that's wherein the problem lies. How long will it be until we reach that point down the road where Eminger is the "top two defenseman" TSN think he can be?

It's no secret that defensemen take longer to develop than forwards, so let's take a look at some other very successful "top two" blueliners. Through 124 NHL games, Eminger has five goals, 24 assists and is minus-33. Dan Boyle? Through 129 games in the show, Boyle had 10 goals, 29 assists and was minus-17 for the Florida Panthers (of course Boyle was signed as an undrafted free agent, so expectations were lower). Sheldon Souray? Through 130 NHL games, Souray had four goals, 14 assists and was +23 for stingy Devil teams. Bryan McCabe? 162 games, 15 goals, 36 assists, -26 for the Isles. Philippe Boucher (who was taken 13th overall back in 1991)? 124 games, 15 goals, 32 assists, -26.

You get the point.

The bottom line is that at barely 23 years old and with less than two full NHL seasons' worth of experience it is far too early to give up on Eminger and call him a bust. What is most troubling, however, are the mental errors that are so apparent in his game. Whether it's not knowing when to step up to play a puck versus backing off to play the man or flipping a puck over the glass from the defensive zone, these mistakes have been killers and have been quite disappointing. But there have been plenty of extremely successful hockey players who have compensated for a lack of natural hockey sense with hard work and raw skill. Hopefully Eminger has enough of the former to develop the latter and make him a reliable top-four defenseman someday in the not-too-distant future.