Saturday, September 05, 2009

2009-2010 Previews -- Defensemen: John Erskine

John Erskine

Theme: "If the power to do hard work is not a skill, it's the best possible substitute for it."

The quote from James A. Garfield seems especially appropriate for John Erskine. Last season, Erskine played the most games of any season in his NHL career (52), and while he is not likely to build a career as an elite NHL defenseman, he has put together a respectable career, filling a role as a physical defenseman on a team that could use more of that attribute.

But with physical play comes the unfortunate result of injury, and it is something Erskine has had to deal with in each of his three seasons with the Caps:

2006-2007: fractured foot (25 games), thumb (14 games)
2007-2008: lower body injury (one game), upper body injury (six games)
2008-2009: concussion (22 games), flu (one game), leg injury (two games)

These aren’t physical breakdowns as much as they are the effects of collision. But will they accumulate? Erskine might be asked to take on an additional role this year. If not the Caps’ “enforcer,” the departure of Donald Brashear might pull Erskine into a larger role as a player to keep the peace, or at least keep opponents honest. In 132 games with the Capitals, Erskine has been in 12 fights, so he is no stranger to that aspect of the game. But while he had five in 29 games in the 2006-2007 season, he had four in 51 games in 2007-2008 and three in 2008-2009. That might be explained by his taking on a larger role in terms of his on-ice responsibilities, it also might be explained by his having sustained a concussion last year. Erskine should not be expected next year to assume the mantle worn by Brashear – policing the ice is likely to be done by committee, Erskine being a member of that group.

On defense, Erskine appears to be one of those players who can thrive in certain situations, but struggle in others. He was a minus-5 in five games against the Carolina Hurricanes (three of which the Caps won, games in which Erskine was minus-3), a team with considerable team speed. On the other hand, against the four teams in the East that finished above Carolina (Boston, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh, none of which are as quick as Carolina), Erskine finished plus-4 in 13 games and was not a minus player in any of them.

Although using a plus-minus statistic on its own as an indicator carries with it its own problems, it does at least suggest managing how Erskine is deployed. With players coming up from below (Karl Alzner, John Carlson) who might see some time, and the return of Brian Pothier, the prospect of Erskine playing in 50-55 games seems less to be a product of health this coming season as it is spreading time around among defensemen.


Fearless: There is an underestimated efficiency to Erskine’s game. He might be looked at by some as something of a bruiser lacking the skill of a Mike Green or even a Tom Poti or Brian Pothier, but Erskine had the best goals-against-per-60-minutes of any Caps defenseman (5-on-5, 30 games minimum) last year. A lot of that is not facing a team’s top scoring lines (he faced the lowest quality of completion among those Caps defensemen playing at least 30 games, according to, but the job presented to Erskine is one he performed reasonably well. He’ll probably be managed with respect to the teams against which he skates and the situations into which he is placed, but he’s probably going to have more success in those situations than Caps fans might give him credit for. Erskine is one of four NHL roster defensemen under contract at least through 2010-2011 (Mike Green, Tom Poti, and Karl Alzner being the others). One would expect that he’s going to man a 5/6/7 defenseman position for the next couple of years.

Cheerless: There’s nothing special about Erskine. OK, cuz, before you smack me, wait a second. What I mean by that is that of the seven Caps defensemen playing at least 30 games last year, only Milan Jurcina had less ice time on special teams (1:02/game) than did Erskine (1:39). And, his shorthanded time has dropped from 2:57/game in 2006-2007 to 2:16 in 2007-2008 to 1:39 last year. You could say that is a product of other defensemen growing up around him (most notably Mike Green, whose shorthanded ice time climbed from 20 seconds a game in 2007-2008 to 2:28 last year). Erskine might not get more than a minute’s worth of penalty killing time a game this year, and I might get more time on the point on the power play.

In the end…

We’re not going to see Cheerless on the power play, mainly because you generally want to keep two hands on the stick, and one of his is always occupied by a can of beer. As for Erskine, he would not appear likely to improve on his career best 52 games played last year, even if healthy, absent a trade of or injury to one of the other defensemen. Alzner could going to eat into some of his time, and Pothier is starting the year healthy. There will be other defensemen out there for the skills portion of the show – power play and penalty killing, but Erskine has carved out a role based on hard work and competing in those situations he’s called upon to play.


51 games, 1-4-5, even

2009-2010 Previews -- Defensemen: Karl Alzner

It’s September… time for kids to return to school and hockey players to return to the ice. And for those of us in the prognostitorial community, that means it’s time for previews. So let’s get right to it, starting with the defense…

Karl Alzner

Theme: “Every Good Boy Does Fine”

That is the mnemonic that new music students use to memorize the lines of the treble clef in music. And that gets to the point regarding Alzner, or more precisely two numbers – 21 and 30. Alzner will be 21 on opening night of the 2009-2010 season, and he has a grand total of 30 games of NHL experience coming into this season. He will do it playing a very difficult position for young players to master.

But he doesn’t come into the season without expectations. He is the only defenseman of the 2007 draft class who has played an NHL game. He is the only defenseman of the 2007 class among the top 22 selected to play in an NHL game. No other defenseman taken in the 2007 draft have played more than three games in the NHL (John Negrin of Calgary and Yannick Weber of Montreal having played three games apiece, and these are the only other defensemen to have played at all in the NHL from that class so far).

His playing 30 games in the NHL last year was a case of being pressed into duty as a result of injury and illness among the regulars. But of the other 10 defensemen taken in the first round of the 2007 draft, not only have none of them played in an NHL game yet, but only three of them have played in any AHL regular season games (Jonathan Blum did not dress in the regular season for the Milwaukee Admirals, but he did dress for five playoff games). Only one defenseman from that class among the first rounders – Keaton Ellerby – has appeared in more than 10 games in the AHL. Alzner, by comparison to his draft classmates, has rocketed to the NHL. Let that sink in as you ponder the state of Alzner’s development, Caps fans.

But let’s look at those 30 games Alzner played for a moment. They break relatively cleanly into three parts. In his first dozen games, he was 1-3-4, +8, and averaged 20:00 in ice time per game. In his next ten games he assumed, if not greater responsibility, at least more ice time – almost 22 minutes a game (including twice skating more than 24 minutes). But in those games he was held without a point and was a minus-4. In his last eight games he had only one assist and was minus-5 (he had no “plus” games in this stretch); he was held to an average of 16 minutes a game.

What does that mean as far as the coming season is concerned? Well, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions off of a 30-game stint, but some things are evident. Like, he’s not ready for major minutes…yet. But he's got talent.

Let’s set the idea of his having sustained a concussion after he returned to Hershey last year and whether that will retard his development aside. He’s a 21-year old defenseman, and that generally isn’t the sort of defenseman who is ready for getting the high side of 20 minutes a night, much of it against a top pair or killing a lot of penalties. Even if Alzner makes the squad on opening night, he’s not likely to be a top pair defenseman at this point in his career.

Alzner has not yet displayed much of an offensive side to his game. His value is in his own end, but not as the big bopper. His is a game of playing angles and position, and being able to move the puck out of harm’s way. At NHL speed, there will be instances early – as was evidenced in his 30 games last year – in which his judgment and reaction won’t catch up to the speed of the game at the NHL level. But like a young team, young individuals with talent – and Alzner has it – will be better late than they are early.

Let’s ask the cousins for their take. Fearless?

Fearless: Alzner has a quality that is hard to quantify. He’s a winner. The Caps were 20-10 in games in which he appeared (losses include extra time games). What’s more, they were 11-4 in games in which Alzner played more than 20 minutes. Before that, he twice played on Calgary Hitmen teams in Canadian junior that advanced to the Eastern Conference finals in the Western Hockey League. Alzner also has WHL player of the year and Canadian Hockey League defenseman of the year on his amateur resume. He was an assistant captain for a Canadian squad in an eight-game, under-20 challenge series between Canada and Russia in 2007, and he captained the 2009 Canadian team in the World Junior Championship. His teams won both. Where the kid goes, good things seem to follow.

Cheerless: Yeah, all that’s nice, cuz, but is Alzner even going to play on this team this year? I took arithmetic four times in the third grade, so I’m pretty good with numbers, and the Caps are about one and a half million over the salary cap, including Alzner’s bonus money. If they don’t want to carry his bonus into 2010-2011 – or Nicklas Backstrom’s for that matter – and they don’t move somebody (Nylander – cough cough-- ), then Alzner might be getting a lot of time in Hershey this year. And that Carlson kid might beat him out, anyway.

In the end…

Alzner is going to have his ups and downs. The problem he’ll have, though, is that his “ups” are likely to be of the inconspicuous sort, that being his game – efficient, without a flash of the big hit or the end-to-end rush. His downs will be there for all to see, the sort where he shows up in the frame of a photo of an opponent scoring a goal – such is the nature of his position. But Alzner will be a much better defenseman in March and April than he will be in October or November. The mystery, though, is going to be whether he shows that improvement more in Washington or in Hershey. And that isn’t necessarily a “hockey” decision. We’re going to think, though, that by year-end, he’ll be music to Caps fan’s ears.


55 games, 2-7-9, +4