Sunday, October 02, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: John Erskine

John Erskine

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 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)

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: John Carlson

John Carlson

Theme: “What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.”
-- C. S. Lewis

John Carlson was the only rookie defenseman to play in all 82 games of the 2010-2011 season. And that was just one of the areas in which he led or was among the leaders in his rookie class of defensemen…

-- Tied for fourth in goals
-- Tied for second in assists
-- Fourth in points
-- Second in plus-minus
-- Tied for first in game-winning goals
-- First in time on ice
-- Eighth in hits
-- First in blocked shots
-- First in takeaways
-- Second in shots on goal

Quite an opening act. And more than that, he accomplished all of this while facing the highest quality of competition at 5-on-5 among rookie defensemen and the third highest quality of competition among all defensemen while at 4-on-5 (at least 50 games played; numbers from

Carlson’s regular season might be boiled down to two parts. The first part was represented by the first 62 games. That is, until Mike Green suffered a concussion at the hands of the New York Rangers on February 25th. Up to and including that game, Carlson played 62 games, going 5-18-23, plus 14. That is a 7-24-30, plus-19 pace and about 22:30 of ice time per game. But after that, Carlson was 2-12-14, plus-7 in 20 games – an 8-49-57, plus-29 pace with a shade over 23 minutes a game.

It wasn’t all lollipops and accordions, though. Carlson managed only one assist in the Capitals’ five-game first round playoff win over the Rangers, going minus-3 in the process. In the second round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was injured in Game 1, playing only 14 minutes and change. The hip pointer might have hampered his effectivness, despite his scoring a pair of goals and averaging more than 26 and a half minutes in the last three games of the Lightning sweep.

Still, it was a remarkable season for Carlson, one in which he and his partner, Karl Alzner, became the most consistent defensive pair for the Caps and one that was asked to bear the responsibility of facing the best opponents had to offer on most nights.

Fearless’ Take: Consistency was a hallmark of Carlson’s game. He had no month in which he finished in minus territory, and on only Mondays did he end up there (only seven games played on Mondays). He had at least one goal in five of the seven months of the season (including not getting one in a four-game April) and had at least one on every day of the week except Monday. He was 2-6-8, plus-6 in 30 games against the other seven teams in the East to make the playoffs.

Cheerless’ Take: Carlson would probably like to forget his season against the Rangers. Nine games – regular season and playoffs – 0-1-1, minus-8.

The Big Question… Should John Carlson be picking lottery numbers?

What a run Carlson has had over the last 20 months… scores Gold Medal goal in the 2010 World juniors championship, scores the game-tying goal in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs to help the Caps avoid an 0-2 deficit in the first round (ok, they lost anyway), plays for two Calder Cup winners with the Hershey Bears in the AHL, is the cream of the NHL’s 2010-2011 rookie class of defensemen culminating in his being named to the NHL’s All Rookie Team. The thread here isn’t so much that he has accomplished a lot, but that he has been a part of winning teams. Now, the trick will be to add to that kind of progress by helping push the Caps further toward a championship.

In the end…

It is hard to believe John Carlson will not turn 22 until January. And despite the consistent progress he has made in his brief professional career, there is the notion of a player of his age and experience having lapses here and there. But looking at his season last year, one wonders whether he is going to be subject to those kinds of lapses, at least as frequently as such a young player might. To date he has shown quite an ability to accept responsibility. An example – when Mike Green was injured in that February 25th game against the Rangers, Carlson finished the night a minus-3 on a night when the Caps were pasted, 6-0, on home ice. It was the last time that Carlson would finish a game worse than minus-1 for the rest of the year. Of course, there is also that Carlson had only three games all season in which he was worse than a minus-1 (two of them came against the Rangers).

John Carlson is entering the last year of his entry-level contract. He could be in for a handsome payday if his career takes the next step forward. Not a “Drew Doughty” kind of payday, perhaps, but then again, the idea is to take a step. Then another step.

Projection: 82 games, 9-32-41, plus-24

(Photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images North America)