Theme: "'Manage' is a verb..."
John Erskine is the designated “physical defenseman” for the Caps. In 182 games as a Cap he has recorded 391 hits (2.1 per game) and 294 penalty minutes. But there is another number that lurks ominously among Erskine’s tenure as a Cap – 87. Nope, not the player he’d like most to smear into the glass (ok, maybe). It is the number of games he has missed to injury over his four seasons with Washington. On a club that has only seven parent roster defensemen at the moment, the fact that Erskine has missed so many games to injury and has not played in more than 52 in any of his four seasons with the Caps is an issue. In fact, based on his previous three seasons – 50, 52, and 51 games played – he is a pretty good bet to miss 30 games or so (you might think you’re having déjà vu if you read this space, and yes, we did make this point last year).
On a team that has offensive capability from the blue line from such as Mike Green, Tom Poti, and to a lesser extent John Carlson, Erskine doesn’t have to contribute at the offensive end. What a 5/6 defenseman in his situation has to contribute is a physical edge and not be a liability in his own end. Erskine does provide that physical edge, but he gets next to no penalty killing time (he has barely ten minutes of total shorthanded ice time in his entire career with the Caps). So that’s going to leave 5-on-5 defense. He was one of three Caps defensemen last year with a Corsi differential in negative territory (Corsi-on ice minus Corsi-off ice). Parenthetically, it is more than a little ominous that the other two – Tyler Sloan and Karl Alzner – along with Erskine make up three of the seven parent roster defensemen at the moment. A related number (all numbers from behindthenet.ca) – shots on/off per 60 minutes differential – also show Erskine finishing as one of three defensemen in negative territory (Sloan, Alzner).
Curiously enough, however, he did post the fourth best goals for/against per 60 minutes differential on the club, but this might be as much a product of his time and matchups being managed. Erskine finished the season last year having faced the weakest competition of any Caps defenseman.
However, even with the competition against which he played being relatively weak, Erskine had difficulty in this respect. He led all Caps defensemen in penalties taken per 60 minutes and tied for second worst in penalties taken/penalties drawn per 60 minutes differential among the defensemen (largely a product of Karl Alzner not having drawn a penalty).
Erskine does not drop the mitts as often with the Caps (16 times in four seasons with the Caps) as he did when he split the 2005-2006 season between Dallas and the Islanders (13 fights). That will be more D.J. King’s role on the club. And that’s probably a good thing, given his injury history. Not that one is necessarily the product of the other in each instance of injury, but the two do not go hand-in-hand, either.
But here is the thing. Erskine was a plus-16 in 50 games. And say what you will about plus-minus, but more good things happened than bad ones when Erskine was on the ice. And while his play against playoff teams was not up to what it was against non-playoff teams, it isn’t clear that his play was significantly weaker against one than the other. He was 0-1-1, plus-7 against teams that would make the post-season and 1-4-5, plus-9 against teams that sat home in the spring.
Fearless: Caps fans might take comfort that the team plays 14 Tuesday games this season, cousin. Erskine was 1-2-3, plus-7 in seven Tuesday tilts last year. He was 0-2-2, plus-5 the previous year (his best day of the week).
Cheerless: If he plays 50 games, he probably has a pretty decent season – might look a lot like last year’s. If the Caps are expecting 70 games out of him, playing against all manner of team, including the ones that will leave him standing by the side of the road… Well, that ain’t gonna be good.
It would be easy to dismiss Erskine as a 6/7 defenseman. Truth be told, that is probably the role he should have on this team, given his skill sets and the likely number of games he might play. But you have to have such a defenseman to fill in gaps and contribute against opponent against which he might match well. He can contribute minutes as long as he’s not put in situations outside his comfort zone. An example. Last year, Erskine was scoreless in four games against Montreal and was a plus-3. He did not see action in the series against the Canadiens in the playoffs (John Carlson played in all seven games, getting the ice time that an Erskine might otherwise have received). Some players need to have their appearances and ice time managed more than others, and Erskine might be just such a player. But if that is accommodated, he can be a positive asset. What he probably should not be is an every night 5/6 defenseman on this team, which is probably where he resides at the moment.
56 games, 1-4-5, plus-9