During the opening month of the season, Washington Capitals’ management and fans were able to get a glimpse of the future centerpiece of their defense. Steve Eminger, 19, the team’s top first round pick in the 2002 entry draft, has been living out a dream by earning a spot on an NHL team just several months after being drafted.
“It’s something that I’ve waited for since I was a kid,” Eminger said. “It’s just a dream come true.”
After playing nine games, playing more than 10 minutes only four times, the question surrounding the talented defenseman is whether he is ready to play his 10th game, which would qualify this season as his first full professional campaign. Whether he is returned to his junior team or not, he would be paid the full amount of the first-year salary on the three-year contract he signed days prior to opening night.
Early in the season, General Manager George McPhee maintained that the club had no intentions of returning Eminger to his junior team unless he had a very difficult time adapting to the NHL game.
“Sometimes [teenagers] are in over their heads and you have to be careful about it. If he is, we’ll move him back to junior, but the plan is to keep him here a long time, but we’ll watch him closely to make sure we do the right thing,” McPhee said.
In the middle of October, starting goaltender Olaf Kolzig suffered a hand injury, so Sebastien Charpentier was recalled, muddying up the roster situation a little bit. Backup Craig Billington had not been performing consistently and Charpentier has been given the opportunity to re-take the backup job he won in training camp.
In three games, since being recalled, Charpentier has performed very well, including making 43 saves against Philadelphia on Nov. 2 in a 2-1 loss. Kolzig comes off of the injured list on Thursday, so the team must decide whether to demote one of the two backups or to send Eminger back to his junior team, the Kitchener Rangers—an option that seems more likely than even a week ago, since Eminger has been a healthy scratch for two straight games.
Many factors were involved in Eminger winning a roster spot this season. McPhee praises his reliability and poise.
“He’s a pretty reliable player. He’s got good speed and good poise and he doesn’t panic too much,” McPhee said. “We thought he did a pretty nice job all through camp and sustained it, so he’ll stay as long as he can keep it up.”
Eminger is happy to be in the NHL, but knows that he must adapt to the speed of the professional game if he wants to stay there for the rest of the year.
“Nothing’s really uncomfortable. Defensively, I need to get on the guy tighter and get that puck out,” Eminger said. “I don’t think I really struggle on one thing. I just need to get my game up one notch higher.”
Eminger started the season as veteran Calle Johansson’s defensive partner. Johansson thinks Eminger will be a very good NHL defenseman.
“He’s a great player and he’s going to be a great, great player for many years in this league,” Johansson said. “There’s not too many guys who can step right in and play when you’re 18 and that just proves that he’s one heck of a player.”
Like McPhee, Johansson is impressed with Eminger’s poise and his vision on the ice.
“I think he reads the play very well. He’s a great passer and he’s got a lot of poise,” Johansson said. “He doesn’t panic when he gets the puck and he’s really calm out there.”
On Thursday, Nov. 7, the Capitals face the Florida Panthers. Kolzig returns to the lineup and it is yet to be seen if Eminger will also return to the lineup. If he does, he will very likely spend the entire season in Washington, slowly developing and earning more ice time as he adjusts to the professional level.