Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Steve Eminger: Stud Or Stiff?

Caps blueliner Steve Eminger would be the first to tell you that he stunk on ice last night against Tampa (actually, I might be the first to tell you that and Steinberg might be the first to tell you that I'll tell you that, but I digress).

Through 29 games this season, Emmy, now in his third full NHL season, has no goals, five assists and a minus-8 plus/minus rating, putting him on pace for a 14 assist/minus-19 campaign, this on the heels of a five-goal, 13-assist, minus-12 season last year. Per's scouting report, Eminger "[h]as the tools to quarterback the power play," "[d]isplays plenty of offensive acumen," and "can also be a solid defender," but it's simply not translating on the ice. By most accounts, he has taken a big step backwards this year, and the numbers would seem to back that up (though he has played better since being paired with John Erskine).

Speaking of numbers, let's take a look at some, shall we? Currently, he's third among the team's defensemen in time-on-ice-per-game (18:22) and shorthanded ice time per game and getting next-to-no power play ice time. Contrast that with last year, where he was second among blueliners in TOI/G (21:20), third in SH TOI/G and actually got power play minutes. Obviously minutes are earned and not handed out like candy on Halloween and the signing of Brian Pothier and emergence of Mike Green have cut into Emmy's minutes as well, but part of the decrease in production is no doubt the result of the two-plus minutes of power play time per game that he has lost.

So how should we measure Eminger's progress (or lack thereof)? How about comparing Eminger to other blueliners drafted after back in 2002 (excluding top-five picks Jay Bouwmeester and Joni Pitkanen who are quite simply another level of defenseman). Because of the Caps' rebuild, Eminger has played more games than any of them and has outscored them all too (though Chicago's Duncan Keith is about to pass him [sidenote: never trust a man with two first names]). But is there a blueliner taken after Eminger that you'd rather have right now? Any Trevor Daley fans out there? Perhaps Keith, and I've heard good things about Grebeshkov, Babchuk and Koltsov, but haven't been impressed. Point being that it's too early to tell on these kids.

What about defensemen drafted in a similar spot in the draft? Here's a list of all the defensemen taken between tenth and 15th overall in the five years leading up to the 2002 draft (in which Eminger was taken 12th): Brad Ference, Branislav Mezei, Jeff Jillson, Ron Hainsey, Dan Hamhuis and Igor Knyazev. Do you see anyone there who Eminger can't be better than in the next one-to-five years? Maybe Hamhuis?

Emmy's points-per-game might not be where you'd like, but the experience he has gained in the NHL at such an early age should prove invaluable down the road. And that's wherein the problem lies. How long will it be until we reach that point down the road where Eminger is the "top two defenseman" TSN think he can be?

It's no secret that defensemen take longer to develop than forwards, so let's take a look at some other very successful "top two" blueliners. Through 124 NHL games, Eminger has five goals, 24 assists and is minus-33. Dan Boyle? Through 129 games in the show, Boyle had 10 goals, 29 assists and was minus-17 for the Florida Panthers (of course Boyle was signed as an undrafted free agent, so expectations were lower). Sheldon Souray? Through 130 NHL games, Souray had four goals, 14 assists and was +23 for stingy Devil teams. Bryan McCabe? 162 games, 15 goals, 36 assists, -26 for the Isles. Philippe Boucher (who was taken 13th overall back in 1991)? 124 games, 15 goals, 32 assists, -26.

You get the point.

The bottom line is that at barely 23 years old and with less than two full NHL seasons' worth of experience it is far too early to give up on Eminger and call him a bust. What is most troubling, however, are the mental errors that are so apparent in his game. Whether it's not knowing when to step up to play a puck versus backing off to play the man or flipping a puck over the glass from the defensive zone, these mistakes have been killers and have been quite disappointing. But there have been plenty of extremely successful hockey players who have compensated for a lack of natural hockey sense with hard work and raw skill. Hopefully Eminger has enough of the former to develop the latter and make him a reliable top-four defenseman someday in the not-too-distant future.


Unknown said...

YEs, Dmen can take quite a while to develop. Still, you have to wonder if the guy will become just another David Tanabe or Martin Skoula who peaked early and never really developed despite their mad skillz.

Bring back Majesky!

Anonymous said...

1) have to agree with all of you here. Emminger has disapointed thus far. Who would have thunk in early October that Erskine would be missed?
2) Also agree that its way too early though to give up on the kid. Having said that, if a legit deal to improve the team is offered, with the depth of young defenders on the Caps, its possible Emminger might be the odd man out.

JP said...

On the plus side, Jes, Eminger hasn't peaked at all yet (unless you count that five-second span against the Rangers on Columbus Day '05).

So what's the answer? Press box? Hershey? Let him play his way out of it?

JP said...

A quick glance at Eminger's performances in Caps' last five losses (0 points, -8):

TB - see last post for specifics
PIT - on the ice for the Crosby and Malkin even strength goals, the second of which tied the game in the third
ANA - on the ice for three even strength goals against
NYI - on the ice for two even strength goals against
TOR - on the ice for two even strenght goals against

Obviously this doesn't include what he's done in the Caps' wins over that span (2A, +3 in 10 games), but Eminger simply has to get more consistent or be sat down.

Anonymous said...

Eminger sat down for who? Jamie Hunt? Or, assuming Erskine is not out for a while, play both Heward and Muir every game?

And then how does Eminger improve from being benched? That happened before, briefly, to little success.

Hershey I don't think is an option either. Then you create a logjam down there, and put him in a league where he can probably still make some of these mental mistakes and get away with some of it. More importantly, won't he have soon played enough NHL games to require clearing waivers (I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong)?

I think that if the mental mistakes are reduced, he'll be much more consistent and more confident. As you suggest, he's got the skill. So its really an ultimate test of whether he's got the mental stamina to be an NHL regular for a winning team.

I'd say play him 15 minutes a game, give him some second unit PP time here and there, and look for marked improvement by year-end. If by next summer we're having the same discussion, it may be time to say three years is enough. Was he re-signed this summer to a two-year deal?

JP said...

If I'm not mistaken, I think he's only signed through this year (and Caps Corner corroborates that).

Admittedly, the progressions of guys like Morrisonn and Green make Eminger look worse and the team's overall performance makes him look worse still (if this team was in 14th place in the Conference, we'd no doubt be relatively more patient with individual player development).

It's a really tough call - you'd like to see the guy play with more of a sense of urgency and more confidence but at the same time not force things and make bad mistakes. But in lieu of that, you'd like to at least see that things are headed in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Eminger, I think, has this season to straighten himself out. After that, things start getting crowded. Pepper mentioned Jamie Hunt. Considering Hunt's performance in Hershey, Hunt may be playing for a third pairing role next year, especially given his powerplay capabilities. Sami Lespito may get a look next year as well, with Oscar Hedman still out there somewhere. All three are similar to Eminger.

Anonymous said...

JP: Great research on the Eminger comparisons. It's gonna be interesting to see how he develops, but there has definitely been a difference since he was paired with Erskine. And then back in the other direction last night without JE.