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Coming Into His Own

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
Eminger has averaged 14:43 of ice time for the Panthers since coming over in the trade with Tampa. (Getty Images)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com


SUNRISE – When the Panthers acquired Steve Eminger last week from the Lightning, they obtained a young defenseman who led Tampa’s defense in assists and blocked shots and someone who can log 20 minutes a night.

They also added the third top defenseman from the draft class of 2002.

The Panthers, who drafted Jay Bouwmeester No. 3 in the ’02, traded with Phoenix for Keith Ballard (the No. 11 overall pick) in June and added Eminger (No. 12 overall) at last week’s trade deadline.

All were projected by Central Scouting to be puck-carrying defensemen with an offensive upside and all were expected to be top four defensemen. Seven years later, Central Scouting seems to have done a pretty good job with their projections.

Although all three have taken different paths to wind up with the Panthers during this playoff chase, Bouwmeester is an All-Star, Ballard has been a top four ‘D” here and in Phoenix, and Eminger has found his confidence and game in Tampa.

“For everybody it’s different,” said Ballard, referring to a defenseman’s progress in the NHL. “The biggest thing when you come in is adjusting, and some people have to change their game a bit. I was fortunate (in Phoenix) to be in a situation where I was allowed to keep playing the same role.”

Ballard spent two more seasons playing college hockey at Minnesota after being drafted by the Sabres before spending a year in the American Hockey League (AHL). It wasn’t until 2005 that Ballard made his NHL debut.

Immediately after being drafted, Bouwmeester was in a Panther uniform, playing the full 82 games his rookie season on a team that struggled with a 24-36-13-9 record. Bouwmeester’s offensive flair was stifled throughout his early seasons in Florida.

2002 NHL ENTRY DRAFT
TOP 15

Pick
Team
Name
Position
1
Columbus
Rick Nash
F
2
Atlanta
Kari Lehtonen
G
3
Florida
Jay Bouwmeester
D
4
Philadelphia
Joni Pitkanen
D
5
Pittsburgh
Ryan Whitney
D
6
Nashville
F
7
Anaheim
Joffrey Lupul
F
8
Minnnesota
Pierre-Marc Bouchard
F
9
Florida
Petr Taticek
F
10
Calgary
Eric Nystrom
F
11
Buffalo
Keith Ballard
D
12
Washington
Steve Eminger
D
13
Washington
Alexander Semin
F
14
Montreal
Christopher Higgins
 F
15
Edmonton
Jesse Niinimaki
F
           
Eminger, drafted by the Capitals, played only 17 games with the ‘Caps his rookie season before returning to juniors and winning the Memorial Cup with the Kitchener Rangers, who were coached by Panther coach Peter DeBoer and whose teammate included Gregory Campbell.

He split his time between Washington and the ‘Caps AHL affiliate in Portland in 2003-04 and then was caught in the Capitals rebuild. He played only 20 games last season in Washington, many times a healthy scratch, but found his game in Tampa this season after playing the first 12 games of the year in Philadelphia.

Eminger admitted last week he was excited about being acquired by a playoff contender. “The first thing that hit me was I’m in the playoff picture,” he said. “That wasn’t going to happen in Tampa. They were bringing up younger guys to develop.”

For Eminger, his move from juniors to the NHL has been as challenging as most young defensemen. Eminger said because of the “speed of the game and strength of the guys…you’re almost a step behind.”

“You come out of junior and you’re one of the faster players or, size wise, you’re stronger,” he said. “But, yeah, sometimes you do have to change. You have to make decisions a lot quicker. Instead of skating the puck you move it to your forwards and then join. You make the first pass, put it in the forwards hands, and then you have to kind of learn to be that second layer of attack. And you’re main job is to defend and be solid defensively.”

Most coaches would admit it takes defensemen longer to acclimate than forwards. Players echo that sentiment.

“Obviously, (Eminger) was drafted as a puck-moving guy,” said Campbell of his teammate. “They played him as a young, 18-year-old and I think that might have changed his game a tad because as a defenseman when you’re 18 it’s tough to play in this league.”

But with a number of injuries on the Tampa blue line, Eminger emerged as one of their leaders defensively. In 50 game in Tampa, Eminger had 19 assists (four goals). He’s also feeling more comfortable with his game.

“I feel more comfortable skating the puck,” he said. “When I look back at my first year to now, you want to handle the puck a lot more. Back then you didn’t have that confidence to handle it. You’d give it up quicker than now. There are situations where you’re handling the puck a lot more.”
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