Sunday, May 23, 2010

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: John Erskine

John Erskine

Theme: “Do not worry about holding high position; worry rather about playing your proper role.”
-- Confucius

If you are going to look for John Erskine in the statistical tables at the NHL Web site, you are not going to find him very highly ranked in the summary tables – tied for 20th in total scoring for the Caps, tied for 24th in goals, tied for 19th in assists, no power play goals, no game-winning goals, and he finished with 50 shots on goal in 50 games played.

Head over to the “real time stats,” and you’ll see where the value of a player such as Erskine lies. He finished fifth on the team in hits (third in hits per game), fifth in blocked shots. And on a team that lacked a true bruiser to keep the peace, Erskine was part of enforcement-by-committee, finishing second on the club in fighting major penalties. And he hardly took on any shrinking violets in his four bouts. The opponents he faced – Chris Thorburn, David Koci, Georges Laraque, and Shawn Thornton – combined for 45 fights among them.

Erskine’s was a tough role to play, one that does not necessarily show up in his 10-game segments…

His numbers are somewhat lopsided in this respect – Erskine finished 0-1-1, plus-4 in 24 games against playoff teams. On the other hand, he was 1-4-5, plus-12 in 26 games against the teams failing to get a ticket to the dance. In fact, he was 1-4-5, plus-8 against the five teams he played against that finished with a winning percentage below .500 (Tampa Bay, Carolina, the Islanders, Florida, and Toronto). He was 0-0-0, minus-3 against Montreal in four regular season games, which might explain why he did not get the call during the playoffs.

Peering a little further into his numbers, Erskine (perhaps surprisingly) had the second best goals against/on ice-per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 of all Caps’ defensemen playing in at least 40 games (Jeff Schultz led the club). He also had the second best differential of goals against (on ice/off ice) per 60 minutes. But with that comes the fact that Erskine also faced the lowest quality of competition among that same group of defensemen.

Erskine had a particularly rough time on the penalty kill. Among those Caps defensemen playing in at least 40 games, Erskine had the second worst goals against/on ice per 60 minutes. However, he had the worst goals against differential (on ice/off ice) per 60 minutes and the worst plus/minus differential (on ice/off ice) per 60 minutes.

Erskine is as close as the Caps have to a physical defenseman. As such, he is expected to walk a fine line along the edge of the rules from time to time. This year he showed a considerable amount of discipline when it came to taking minor penalties. The 18 minors he took in 50 games is half the number he took (38) in 51 games two seasons ago, and it was six fewer than he took in 52 games in 2008-2009. The difference is a reduction in the number of “obstruction” penalties (holding, holding the stick, hooking, tripping, interference). In 2007-2009 Erskine committed 19 such penalties among the 36 minors he recorded. This past season, that number was reduced to ten. The more physical infrations (roughing, boarding, slashing, instigating, elbowing, cross checking, high sticking, kneeing) went from 14 in 2007-2008 to eight this past season.

Erskine is entering the last year of a contract that will pay him $1,275,000 next season. Assuming that John Carlson and Karl Alzner make the big club next season, and Jeff Schultz is re-signed, Erskine is one of seven defensemen under contract for next season (this number does not include free agents Shaone Morrisonn, Milan Jurcina, or Joe Corvo). He has played 51, 52, and 50 games for the Caps over the past three seasons, missing 48 games to injury and the rest to other scratches. That would seem to be where his best mix of games lies – somewhere in the 50 game range as a 6/7 defenseman, either filling in for injury, playing against teams where a physical presence is needed, or taking the ice where the shortcomings he has cannot be taken advantage of effectively by opponents. It isn’t a role likely to be much heralded, but it is one that Erskine can play adequately for this team moving forward.

Grade: C+

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