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Courtesy of www.washingtoncaps.com

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For the past two decades, fans of the Washington Capitals have had the often sublime pleasure of watching some of the game’s best defensemen ply their trade on the local ice sheets. The likes of Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, Larry Murphy, Kevin Hatcher, Calle Johansson, Sylvain Cote, Al Iafrate and Sergei Gonchar have thrilled the faithful with their prowess at either or both ends of the rink from the early 1980s through the present.

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But as the 2003-04 season dawns, only Gonchar remains clad in the blue, black and bronze. For the first time in two decades, Washington will go into a season with just one of those stalwart defenders on its training camp roster. When the Capitals take the MCI Center ice to start the season against the Islanders on Oct. 9, it is conceivable that as many as four of the Washington defensemen that night will have fewer than 100 games of NHL experience under their belts.

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Clearly, the Caps are in a mode of rebuilding their defense and the team is in need of another player – or two – who it can trust to give it more than 20 minutes a night and play in key situations. Washington hopes that Steve Eminger can become that blue chip blueliner, but that’s a lot to ask from a player who is in the waning months of his teenage years.

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2003 Draft: Toronto rThe last 14 months of Eminger’s life have been very eventful, certainly more so than the days of most 18- and 19-year-olds. In that time period he was drafted, he debuted in the NHL, won a silver medal at the World Junior Championships and was a key leader for the Memorial Cup champion Kitchener Rangers. He will celebrate his 20th birthday on Oct. 31 and his immediate future figures to be as full and busy as his recent past.

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Eminger’s whirlwind began late last June when the Capitals chose him with the first (12th overall) of their three first-round selections in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. He spent two weeks in the Washington area at the Capitals’ developmental camp in July of 2002 and then played well for the Capitals’ tournament-winning rookie team in Traverse City, MI last September. After acquitting himself extremely well in training camp, Eminger earned a spot on the club’s Opening Night roster and signed his first pro contract.

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“Things were happening pretty quick last year,” admits Eminger. “Even myself at the beginning, I didn’t really expect to make the club. As things progressed, I found my chances were better. But from the beginning I just wanted to make a good impression. This year, I know what to expect. I know the defense situation and I just want to step in here and play full time.”

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The “defense situation” is simple. Among the team’s incumbent defensemen, only Sergei Gonchar (598) and Brendan Witt (496) have as many as 150 games worth of NHL experience. Calle Johansson (1,101) and Ken Klee (570) are extremely unlikely to return, at best. Klee averaged 21:48 of ice time per game last season; Johansson averaged 21:45. When training camp convenes in September, close to a dozen young and/or unproven blueliners will vie for those minutes.

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Despite his youthfulness, Eminger will have as good a chance as any of them. He regularly skated as much as 35-40 minutes a night with Kitchener where he played both special teams and regularly went up against the opposition’s top forwards. He also got a taste of life in the NHL early last season before Washington sent him to Team Canada’s World Junior camp. Those 17 NHL games did him a lot of good.

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“I know what the pace is up here now,” he states firmly. “You kind of know what the coaches want and you kind of know the players a bit more. That’s something I had no idea of last year. I had no idea of what the guys were like or what the NHL was. I definitely have a good idea [now] and I’m going to step my game up a bit more and I feel a little more comfortable out there.

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“I had a little taste and I think this is going to help me out this year here. That two or three months last year, I think that’s going to help me out a lot”

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The World Junior experience was a positive one for Eminger, even though Team Canada had to settle for second best.

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“The World Juniors [tournament] is a pretty big thing to Canadians and having it in our home country as well made it that much bigger for us,” says Eminger. “So it was a bit of a disappointment for us and from the fans and for our own selves it was a disappointment. But ending up with the silver [medal] is not the worst thing. We gave it 100 percent and you can’t really be that mad if you have that effort.”

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Eminger had much to celebrate in Kitchener rWhen the tournament concluded in early January, the Caps could have summoned Eminger back to Washington for the remainder of the season. But the defenseman was used sparingly when he was in DC, averaging scarcely more than 10 minutes a tilt. The Caps’ brass figured that a bigger role in Kitchener would do more for Eminger’s confidence and development than would spot duty in Washington. Time proved the wisdom of that decision as Eminger’s eventful season ended with he and his teammates hoisting the Memorial Cup.

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“I think the highlight of my career now is being on a championship team,” he exudes proudly. “I’ve been close in the past – like World Juniors – I’ve been close but losing in the end. Finally being on the other end of it was a feeling that you can’t even describe.

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“On the ice it was a great experience – winning. Off the ice, it’s memories that are going to last forever. When you’re in a tournament like that, the team just comes together in a different way and it was a good bond that we shared throughout that week.”

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Eminger’s season had its share of ups and downs, but he capped it on a winning note. And as he reflected back on his season, he was able to see value in each of his three stops.

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“Definitely the [time in] Washington gave me a lot of confidence and that was a big boost for myself,” he admits. “You’re playing at the highest level at 18-19 years old and I think that guys on both teams that I went down to play [with] really looked up to me. I think that’s a good confidence boost for any player.

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“The world juniors was just a different style; playing against Europeans adds a lot to your game, your transition game and your passing. That helps out a lot.

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“At Kitchener, I think in a leadership role that really helped me out a lot. With a couple of the other guys – [Gregory] Campbell and [Derek] Roy – to kind of lead the team to a championship was a great experience and a lot of fun.”

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Eminger hopes to make a more lasting impact with the big club this season rEminger spent two weeks at Washington’s 2003 summer developmental camp in July and looked smooth, poised and confident. He will be the featured defensive player on the team the Caps bring to Traverse City for the 2003 Prospects Tournament (Sept. 5-9) and immediately afterwards will return to Washington to compete for a regular spot on the Capitals’ blueline brigade.

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“A year ago, I think my main concern was to make a good first impression,” says Eminger. “I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what the level was and I just wanted to get that first training camp under my belt and things went from there. This year my main goal is to make the team. I think I’m a bit more focused this year on just making it.”

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The Caps would love for Eminger to make the team and establish himself in Washington and the NHL. But the reality is that few players are physically and mentally mature enough to step in and play at such a high level at such a young age. That was the case last year when the Caps opted to send him back to Kitchener. He won’t be force-fed in DC; he will have to earn a spot and play well to stay here throughout the 2003-04 campaign.

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If Washington decides that Eminger needs more seasoning this year, he will get it in Portland, ME as a member of the Caps’ Portland Pirates AHL affiliate. The “will he go (to Kitchener) or will he stay (in DC)” specter of last fall is gone now; if Eminger doesn’t crack the Washington lineup he will be a mainstay in Portland.

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“I was kind of on the edge of my seat a lot,” he recalls of last season and not knowing whether he would stay in DC or be returned to his junior team. “I didn’t know when I was going to get sent down or if I was going to get sent down. I didn’t really know what was going to happen.

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“So this year, yeah. It’s going to be a little different. You have [the possibility] of Portland now and Washington. You are still pro but I think your main goal is Washington the whole time.”

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Obviously, Eminger is a supremely talented and gifted player if he is being used as much as 40 minutes a night on a Memorial Cup champion team. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Toronto native is effective at both ends of the ice, but he relies more on brains than brawn in his own end.

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“One of the things I key on in my game and I think one of my stronger points of my game is limiting mistakes and kind of playing a safer style,” declares Eminger. “I’m going to try for the offense but I kind of think safety first. I think that’s a real key to my game, make the easy play, make the quick play and have a good transition game.”

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Many great ones have gone before him in Washington and there is a legacy of great defensemen who have called DC home over the years. Ten or fifteen years from now, maybe Eminger’s name will be dropped along with those of Langway, Stevens, et. al. First though, he will have to earn his way into the Washington lineup.

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That process will begin in earnest the first week of September.

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