When Steve Eminger earned a roster spot in training camp two years ago, he was a teenager trying to fit in on a veteran team, a second-year player trying to learn one of the game's most difficult positions.
After 41 games, Eminger was reassigned to the minor leagues, where he spent the rest of 2003-04 and the NHL lockout. He was unhappy about the demotion, but the swift-skating, puck-rushing defenseman now realizes the year and a half he spent with Portland of the American Hockey League accelerated his development -- and more importantly, restored his confidence.
"It did help," Eminger said. "It gave me more time in different situations. I know I didn't put up huge numbers, but I played with that confidence that I played with coming out of junior [hockey]. Now I'm playing with that confidence again, but in the NHL."
Eminger's two assists in the Capitals' surprising 3-2 shootout victory over Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay on Sunday gave him six points (two goals, four assists) in seven games, good for fourth (he is tied with Vancouver's Sami Salo) among defenseman entering last night's games.
"For me, it's about confidence," he said. "I just feel better. But it's also the coaching staff."
Coach Glen Hanlon "from Day One has given me freedom to use my offensive ability," Eminger said. "He said, 'If you're going to play offensive, you might make a couple of mistakes.' But he can live with that, as long as the effort is there. . . . Two years ago I was scared to try things. Now I'm comfortable in the [dressing] room, at practice, everywhere. It comes from them believing in me that I can get the job done."
The first sign of Eminger's progress was apparent during preseason practices. It was confirmed against the Rangers on Oct. 10, when he scored his first career goal in the Capitals' 3-2 win. The 6-foot-2, 217-pound Toronto native scored again three days later against the Islanders, then followed those performances with his best game as a professional against the Lightning, when, in addition to helping set up both Capitals' scores, he logged a team-high 32 minutes 43 seconds. Eminger also boasts a plus-minus rating of plus-4, by far the best on the team.
Suddenly, Eminger is living up to the high expectations media and fans heaped on him after being drafted 12th overall in 2002.
"He's got a lot more experience," Capitals captain Jeff Halpern said. "And playing with [Brendan Witt] has helped stabilize his game."
Hanlon said he has been impressed by Eminger's offensive prowess, but he has been more pleased by his ability to discern when to join the play in the offensive zone, and when not to.
"He's making some good offensive reads," Hanlon said. "His first goal was a real confidence builder. You join the rush, you pass, you get up offensively, you're going to get your points. But he's doing it smartly."
Much of Eminger's confidence boost comes from playing 103 games in the AHL. The rest comes from his defensive partner, Witt, a rugged player who is rarely caught out of position. It's an odd pairing, considering Eminger is potentially the Capitals' future franchise defenseman and Witt wants out of Washington. But for now, they are the team's best tandem.
"It helped him to go to the minors," Witt said. "He went down, worked on his game and got his confidence. In his rookie year, he was a little gun-shy. It was all new for him, but now he's comfortable. . . . We have a good chemistry."
Eminger agreed: "Brendan is so good defensively, he covers for me. He knows the style I'm going to play, and he know he's always going to be behind me."