Theme: “Remember: there are no small parts, only small actors.”
-- Konstantin Stanislavsky
When John Erskine finished the 2010-2011 season with career highs in games played (73), goals (four) assists (seven, tying his total in 2007-2008), points (11), and shots (58), while finishing a respectable plus-1, he might have cemented a spot on the roster as at least a consistent third-pair defenseman. But in 2011-2012 Erskine dressed for only 28 games regular season games – none after February 12th – and another four in the playoffs. His ice time dropped from 14:49 in those 73 regular season games in 2010-2011 to 12:05 in 2011-2012.
Part of the problem was his having injured his left shoulder in March 2011, after which he had surgery in May. His participation in training camp for the 2011-2012 season was limited, and he missed all of October getting back into shape. His action was intermittent thereafter. He had to deal with the balky shoulder through November (missing five games in all), but with the change in coaches for the last game in the month he would dress for 16 of the next 19 games. However, starting with a game against Pittsburgh on January 12th, Erskine would dress for only five of the next 15 games, his regular season coming to an end on February 12th. He would get four starts in the post-season, averaging a little more than nine minutes a game. But the combination of his slow start as a product of his shoulder injury and the emergence of rookie Dmitry Orlov (who would dress for 60 games in all after his call-up in late November).
The 28 games played was the second fewest for Erskine since his second season in the league (16 games for Dallas in 2003-2003). Although Erskine has never been called upon for large contributions at the offensive end, his two points in the 2011-2012 season tied a career low (also in the 2002-2003 season). And that 12:06 in average ice time was his lowest since his first two seasons in the league. All-in-all it was something of a lost season for the ten-year veteran.
If one assumes that it is unlikely any defensemen from Hershey are ready to break into the Capitals’ lineup, the Caps have eight defensemen under contract. Tom Poti, who almost certainly will not dress for the Caps, is one of them (the last year of his contract in 2012-2013). John Carlson is not under contract, but is a virtual certainty to be re-signed. So, we still have eight defensemen to think of here. Jack Hillen, formerly of Nashville and picked up as a free agent in July, has not played in more than 69 games in any of his five NHL seasons. Jeff Schultz, who fell out of favor last season, dressed for only 54 games (fewest since his rookie season). Then there is Dmitry Orlov, who did get those 60 games as a rookie, but who did not dress in any of the 14 post-season games for the Caps last spring. It would be reasonable to think Erskine is squarely in the mix to compete for one of two spots on the Caps’ third pair. That is not much different from the expectations for Erskine in any of his six seasons with the Caps.
One has to think Orlov is going to get a clear shot at the “Wideman” slot from last season, at least as far as even strength ice time is concerned. That leaves Hillen, Schultz, and Erskine battling for that last spot. And, as Peerless pointed out in his wrap-up last spring, Erskine had a lot of advantages in terms of zone starts and competition faced last year, and was not especially effective with the benefits.
The Big Question… Is there room for John Erskine in the starting lineup?
The Capitals appear set on their top two defensive pairs – Karl Alzner and John Carlson being one and Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik being the other. The third pair will be one of those tough decisions for new head coach Adam Oates to deal with. While Dmitry Orlov would seem to have the inside track on one of the spots, his inexperience has to be weighed in the matter. His presence on that pairing is no sure thing. Erskine is in the mix with Jeff Schultz and Jack Hillen for a spot on that pairing. The difficulty for Erskine is that he does not stand out at either end of the ice, hence the fight for a third pair spot. Among 237 defensemen playing in at least 20 games last season Erskine was 167th in Corsi value at 5-on-5, 219th in Corsi relative to quality of competition., this despite being 46th in offensive zone starts. Oddly enough, however, his goals against-on ice per 60 minutes of 1.69 was much better than his corresponding value off ice (2.79). But again, his quality of competition faced was inferior to that faced by most other defensemen. According to behindthenet.ca it was 228th of 237 defensemen in this group. Perhaps having to comeback from significant injury played into this, but still, he is likely to face quite a battle for that third pair spot.
In the end…
It is easy to count out John Erskine as a consistent contributor, but the fact is that injury more than performance has been the big factor in keeping him out of the lineup during his six-year tenure with the Caps. It was a fractured foot and thumb injury keeping him out of 39 games in 2006-2007. It was a concussion sidelining him for 22 games in 2008-2009. An assortment of injuries kept him out for 16 games in 2009-2010. Then there was the shoulder injury that delayed his start last season. Erskine is one of those players who gives his all when he is out there, but sometimes all of it is not there to give. His ability to avoid injury might be the key factor in determining whether he plays a large part or a small part in this lineup in 2012-2013.
Projection: 30 games, 1-5-6, plus-2
(photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America)