Eminger Battles to Make the Cut

The Capitals' Victor Kozlov, left, escapes the dive of Carolina's Tim Gleason as the Caps won their preseason opener.
The Capitals' Victor Kozlov, left, escapes the dive of Carolina's Tim Gleason as the Caps won their preseason opener. (Photos By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The question has been posed to Steve Eminger each of the past two training camps: Is this the season the swift-skating defenseman breaks out and lives up to expectations befitting a 12th overall draft pick?

Eminger hopes to provide a positive answer this winter. But first he must earn a spot on the Washington Capitals' roster, which is likely but not guaranteed.

Tom Poti, Brian Pothier, Milan Jurcina and Shaone Morrisonn are locks for the top four spots on defense. That leaves Eminger battling John Erskine, Josef Boumedienne, Mike Green, Jame Pollock and Jeff Schultz for the remaining three or four spots on the blueline. Coach Glen Hanlon could keep either seven or eight defensemen, depending on how many forwards make the final cut.

Either way, Eminger, who will turn 24 next month, can't afford any missteps.

"Last year, I took it for granted that I was going to be here," he said last night before the Capitals' 3-2 preseason victory in overtime against the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center. "This year, I have to fight for it. So that's what I'm doing. There are 10 guys still here, all good players. Except for a few guys, we're all fighting for spots."

Eminger is among them because he struggled with consistency last season. He would play well for stretches and appear overwhelmed during others. As a result, he was a healthy scratch nine times. The Toronto native finished with one goal, 16 assists and a minus-14 rating in 68 games.

In a perfect situation, Hanlon acknowledged, Eminger would have received more seasoning in the minor leagues before making the leap to the NHL. But the rebuilding Capitals didn't have that luxury following the lockout because of payroll constraints, which forced Eminger to play top-four minutes, perhaps before he was ready.

"This should be Steve's first year to make the transition from Hershey to Washington," Hanlon said. "He was a young kid in a tough position."

That situation got tougher over the summer, when the Capitals signed several free agents in an effort to return to the playoffs after three consecutive last-place finishes in the Southeast Division. The acquisitions of Poti and Boumedienne, and the emergence of Green, in particular, has put the squeeze on Eminger.

In anticipation of stiffer competition in camp, Eminger took a more focused approach to his summer training routine. But his efforts were derailed when he suffered what's believed to be an ankle sprain in July.

He missed some valuable time in the gym and on the ice because of the injury. He was able to skate in drills during the first week of camp but was held out of the first three preseason games. On Friday, he received medical clearance and made his preseason debut last night.

Eminger was solid in 17 minutes 32 seconds of ice time and finished a plus-1. He also was credited with three hits.

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