Theme: “Act well your part, there all the honour lies.”
-- Alexander Pope
Last spring, the Capitals obtained Dennis Wideman as insurance against the absence of then injured Mike Green. This past summer, the Caps signed Roman Hamrilk to add some more punch to the offense and a veteran presence. Where that leaves the Caps today is that they have six defensemen who could conceivable play every night – Green, Hamrlik, Wideman, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Jeff Schultz.
The question is, where does that leave John Erskine? Last season Erskine played in a career high 73 games and for the first time in his career reached the ten-point mark in season scoring (4-7-11, plus-1), not bad for a fellow known primarily as a physical, defensive defenseman. As far as that goes, he did finish 22nd in hits among all defensemen.
And here might be the strangest part of Erskine’s 2010-2011 season. He seemed to have saved his best for the best. In 26 games against the other seven teams in the Eastern Conference that made the playoffs, he was 2-4-6, plus-5. Against everyone else he was 2-3-5, minus-4 in 47 games. But that result should be balanced against the fact that Erskine was 3-4-7, plus-3, through December 1st, covering the first 26 games of the season. He even had a run in November in which he had points in four of five games (2-2-4, plus-4), three of the point games coming against teams that would make the playoffs (Buffalo, Philadelphia, and the Rangers). But in the last 47 games in which he appeared, he was 1-3-4, minus-2 (0-2-2, minus-1 in 15 games against Eastern Conference playoff teams).
Call it reverting to type, perhaps, but Erskine still had what was arguably his best season since entering the NHL. But that has to be tempered with a bit of reality. And that reality is that among Caps defensemen playing in at least 50 games last season, Erskine faced the weakest competition at 5-on-5 (numbers from behindthenet.ca). In fact, only 23 defensemen in the league (among 173 having played in at least 50 games) faced weaker competition.
Fearless’ Take: The Caps won 44 of 73 games in which Erskine played, only four of nine in games in which he did not dress. And the Caps allowed 22 goals in the nine games he missed or 2.44/game. They allowed 2.32 goals/game in the 73 games in which he did play. Just sayin’.
Cheerless’ Take: If there is one Cap who is thrilled with the Thrashers leaving Atlanta for the icier climes of Winnipeg, it might be Erskine. In three games in Atlanta last season he did not record a point and was a minus-4. In fact, he was a minus-3 against the Southeast as a whole. Just sayin’.
The Big Question… Can Erskine crack this lineup with all the changes?
It would appear to be difficult. Erskine has made great strides since coming to the Caps in 2006. But with the additions of Wideman late last season and Hamrlik over the summer, the Caps have added almost 1,800 games of NHL regular season experience. However, there could be opportunities for a seventh defenseman on this team, given the recent injury history of Mike Green and, if it carries over into this season, the inconsistent play of Jeff Schultz. But Erskine is coming off an injury of his own, a shoulder injury sustained late last season that require off-season surgery. He might be a while getting into the lineup. That might open up some minutes for Dmitry Orlov, although Orlov’s future this year is going to be in Hershey. But chances are, given that teams have to use ten or more defensemen in a season, that Erskine will get some significant minutes. It does not seem likely that he will approach last year’s total.
In the end…
Erskine remains the Caps most physical defenseman. He has been a real gamer, becoming a more rounded and more reliable defenseman over the past couple of years. But being a physical defenseman is still the hallmark of John Erskine’s game, and what effects the shoulder injury will have on that is the big unknown going into the season. Erskine can still contribute valuable minutes, provided they are managed effectively. That was the case last season, to a point, when he was not asked often to face an opponent’s top tier forwards. But keep this in mind. He was plus-11 at home, minus-10 on the road last season. It was by far the largest home-road swing in plus-minus of any Caps defenseman.
More than most defensemen, perhaps, managing Erskine’s minutes and roles is important to maximizing his contributions. But it can be a valuable role he plays. Not as prominent as last year’s, perhaps, but an important part, nonetheless.
Projection: 31 games, 1-3-4, plus-2
(Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images North America)