Monday, January 7, 2008

The Strange Case of Steve Eminger

Steve Eminger was drafted twelfth overall in 2002 (one spot ahead of Alexander Semin, incidentally) and broke into the NHL that same year, playing 17 games with the Caps before being returned to his junior team in Kirchner, Ontario. Eminger became a full time member of the Capitals in 2005, after the lockout and played 134 games for the team over the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons, accumulating a respectable six goals, 29 assists, 144 penalty minutes and a -26 rating*. Yet this season Eminger has hardly been seen on the ice for the Capitals (recent sightings notwithstanding), playing in on 3 of 42 games thus far. This has brought forth a wave of speculation from devoted Capitals fans: does Eminger has a crucial flaw in his game he has yet to fix? Are there concerns about his work ethic and/or attitude? Did he sleep with a family member of someone in the Capitals brass? Well I have an explanation and, to the disappointment of some I'm sure, it's quite light on conspiracy theory.

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What I think is often being overlook in the discussion of Eminger's playing time is that playing time and roster moves are actually contingent on two groups: the management, headed by GM George McPhee and the coaching staff, (obviously) headed by Coach Bruce Boudreau. Each of these groups is playing a role in Eminger's difficulty getting ice time.

NHL teams generally dress six defensemen for games and generally carry seven so players can rotate in and out as needed due to injuries, fatigue or a more favorable matchup with an opponent. But of course a team wants more than just seven defensemen in the organization so they can be prepared for long-term injuries or for several players being hurt simultaneously, and that's where Eminger comes in. By keeping Eminger the Capitals have eight defensemen on their roster who can play NHL minutes and since there is a steep drop off in the organization after these guys it makes sense the Capitals want to keep all of them. All of the Capitals current defensemen except Jeff Schultz and Mike Green would have to clear waivers to be sent to Hershey and those two have played their way into the team's top five. Thus from a management standpoint the only way to give the Capitals the necessary depth on the blue line is to keep all eight NHL-caliber defensemen the organization has under contract on the NHL roster.

This creates a problem for the coaching staff when everyone is healthy - rotating seven defensemen through six spots is tough enough; rotating eight through six spots can be nearly impossible, especially when a team has five defensemen (Green, Schultz, Tom Poti, Brian Pothier, Shaone Morrisonn) who are going to play every night as the Caps do. That leaves one spot for three players (in this case Eminger, Milan Jurcina and John Erskine). If you're perceived as the weakest of the three in such a situation, you're going to have a hard time cracking the lineup. Period. The job of the coach is to put out the best lineup he can every night and while that might provide some room for a seventh defenseman to get in the lineup, the one who's eight on the depth chart isn't going to get in unless players ahead of him are hurt.

That's where Eminger stands - a victim of circumstance and the CBA, too valuable as a depth player to just be waived but not good enough to play on a regular basis.

So what should the Capitals do at this point? Honestly, as much as I hate to say it, exactly what they are doing. Getting rid of Eminger just because he isn't playing would be a mistake because the organization does need the depth he provides on the blue line and while it's unfortunate for Eminger to be put in this situation the reality is that the NHL, like any professional sports league, is a cutthroat business and general managers are paid to keep their team as competitive as possible, not coddle athletes. If McPhee gets a a good offer for Eminger or can pluck a depth defenseman from the waivers wire or from another team for a mid-round pick it would be nice of him to let Eminger move on, and if the team doesn't play on playing him next year to offer him a qualifying offer would just be cruel**. But right now the Caps need to keep Eminger because it'd be a mistake for the organization to hurt its chances of succeeding this season so that one player can have a more enjoyable four months.

* I am well aware that a -26 rating is not good by any stretch but given the quality of team Eminger had been playing on and his age I can't think that'd be the reason we've seen so little of him this season.
** For the record I think it would be mistake to get rid of Eminger because I think he has more long-term potential than Jurcina, Pothier or Erskine. I'd like to see the Caps break camp with Poti, Pothier, Alzner, Morrisonn, Green, Schultz and Eminger next season and try to retain Erskine by putting him in the AHL if possible.

1 comment:

Maal said...

In my not so humble opinion, I think that the Cassidy era, and that schmuck himself, broke Eminger. He derailed the young kid's development right at a time when an emerging top 4 defenceman should be nurtured. It's not surprising, he broke a lot of our players in his time here. I think the best thing for Steve at this point would be a trade to another team where he'll be given a solid partner that he can learn from, and quality minutes. 17 healthy scratches in a row may not be the NHL record, but it's a damned disgrace for a kid who plays so well, and who is, arguably, the fastest skating defenceman in the league. In my also not so humble opinion, I want him in Atlanta, I think he'd do great back alongside Kenny Klee. But, I guess we'll see what we'll see. In the interim, I'll continue to mourn the decline of a great guy, and a great player.