The rebuilding Washington Capitals have questions up and down their lineup, but no issue is more pressing than the uncertainty surrounding the team's defense -- a curious hodgepodge of prospects, journeymen, injured players and one who wants out.
It's believed four spots have already been filled, presumably by prospects Shaone Morrisonn and Steve Eminger and veterans Mathieu Biron and Brendan Witt.
That leaves everyone else battling for the final three jobs. (Teams generally carry seven defensemen: three pairings and one spare.) "There's a lot of jobs open," Witt said. "More than any other camp I can remember. When I came up, there was only one."
If Morrisonn, 22, and Eminger, 21, entered camp penciled in, their names are written in ink now.
Despite having played in only 44 NHL games, Morrisonn (6 feet 3, 205 pounds) has not looked out of place through three days of training camp at Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton.
"Steve and I have a great opportunity here," Morrisonn said. "We have a chance to step up and show them that we can fill a role, even though we're young and don't have as much experience as some other guys."
Eminger has been equally impressive. A slick skater and deft stick-handler, Eminger (6-2, 203) has shown the offensive flair that has some predicting he could quarterback Washington's power play someday.
"I'm approaching this camp the same way as the last two: with all I've got," Eminger said. "I've had the same mentality I had the first year coming in, which is not get ahead of myself and think I've made it. I haven't made anything yet."
Not officially, anyway.
"They've had their seasons in the minor leagues, and they are ready to play at this level," General Manager George McPhee said of Morrisonn and Eminger. "How much they play and how much ice time they earn is up to them. It's the opportunity young people want, that they crave. We hope they take charge and fill those roles."
Coach Glen Hanlon has also liked what he has seen. "It's important that they step in, that's our plan," he said. "Morrisonn and Eminger have played [about] half an NHL season. So they aren't coming into training camp not knowing what the NHL is all about."
They are still going to need time to adjust -- and there figures to be several scary moments until they do. Defense is not only the game's most important position; it's the hardest to learn. The Capitals, however, have pledged to be patient.
"There's a good young group, but it's going to take time to mold them into NHL defensemen," Witt said. "But that's part of learning. I went through it. Other coaches are going to put out the top lines against the more inexperienced defensemen. But in a way that's good, because then they get some experience."
And should the young players falter, Hanlon could turn to journeymen Jamie Heward, 34, and Bryan Muir, 32.
"They are looking at me to be a utility guy," Heward said. "On some nights, be a four or five, or on some nights be a seven and not play. At 34 years old I think I can still play. But I also understand there are a lot of young kids on this team who are the future of the Washington Capitals. I want to help them out as much as I can."
The fates of injured defensemen Ivan Majesky (knee) and Jakub Cutta (elbow) remain uncertain. Majesky, who signed last month as a free agent for $800,000, failed his physical because of a knee injury he suffered while playing for Slovakia at the world championships in May. He could miss a significant amount of time. This was supposed to be Cutta's big chance, but his injury, a soft tissue infection in his elbow, set him back a week.
The other defensemen being strongly considered are Nolan Yonkman and Lawrence Nycholat.
And then there's Witt, one of the Caps' few recognizable names. He has requested to be dealt to a contender, but McPhee will move him only if the deal benefits the Capitals.
"When we look at our top four spots, it's an easy decision," Hanlon said. "I like Brendan so much; I'm still hoping we can find a way to change his mind or make him happy because he's so important to us."