Theme: “My range is limited.”
-- Bob Dylan
If you saw the movie, “Titanic,” you will know that the plot focused on the plight of Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater, star-crossed lovers on a doomed ship. Only briefly during the film did the moviegoer see scenes of men caked in soot, shoveling coal into the boilers powering the ship. But without those guys doing that hard work, the ship would not have been going anywhere, and there would have been no story of the unsinkable ship, no movie.
That’s a bit of a roundabout way of saying that John Erskine is that specie of defenseman who does a lot of the hard, the dirty work and doesn’t figure prominently in the credits. Doing that hard work is testimony to Erskine’s persistence and determination to carve out a role as an NHL player. Despite enduring eight separate occasions in which he missed five or more games to injury as a member of the Washington Capitals, he is one of 148 defensemen to play in at least 300 games over the 2006-2007 to 2012-2013 period (coinciding with his career with the Capitals). That sounds like a big number until you think of it in terms of there being 30 NHL teams and that it covers a seven-year period.
In 2012-2013 Erskine had a deceptively effective year in the context of his role. He is by no means thought to be a significant contributor on offense, but he finished the year with his best goals-per-game level in his seven years with the Caps. His points per game was surpassed only by his 2006-2007 season (his first with Washington). His shooting percentage was his best as a Cap, and his shots on goal per game was a career best. He set a career best for average ice time per game. And he did this comfortably within the boundaries of the rules. His penalty minutes per game was a career low.
Let’s just not get carried away with that though. A 3-3-6 scoring line in 30 games is not evidence of being Washington’s answer to Erik Karlsson. Erskine’s role is more of the “serve and protect” variety. Sometimes, that means engaging in the pugilistic arts. And say what you will about Erskine, he is a stand-up guy. When he is called upon or calls upon himself to play that role, he doesn’t do it against sunflowers. Over the last three season Erskine has been involved in 11 bouts. Here is the fight card (most recent first):
- Shawn Thornton (114 NHL regular season fights)
- George Parros (149)
- Bracken Kearns (49 AHL fights)
- Arron Asham (96)
- Chris Thorburn (68)
- Jared Boll (125)
- Andy Sutton (46)
- Mike Rupp (79)
- Ryan Malone (38)
- Eric Boulton (132)
- Milan Lucic (45)
Sometimes, Jack and Rose get to cavort on the promenade deck and on the Grand Staircase because the John Erskine’s of the world are below decks doing a lot of hard and, at times, necessary work.
How many Capitals defensemen had a higher PDO (sum of on-ice team shooting and team save percentages) at 5-on-5 last season than John Erskine? None (minimum 20 games played). How many had fewer offensive zone start shares at 5-on-5. None. Who had a better goals against-on ice/60 minutes at 5-on-5? None. The Caps were 21-7-2 in games in which Erskine dressed, 6-11-1 in games he did not.
There were 201 defensemen who played in at least 20 games last year. Only 19 of them had worse Corsi/on-ice numbers at 5-on-5. In seven seasons with the Caps he has lost 127 games to injury or illness. If you look at his salary cap hit, age and contract duration, his comparables look like Shane O’Brien, Cory Sarich, Michal Roszival, and Jordan Leopold. Is his a good deal in that neighborhood?
The Big Question… Does John Erskine have the wherewithal to take on second pair minutes effectively?
There are two parts to that question – his own effectiveness and his effect on his partner’s. Erskine averaged 18:27 in total ice time per game last season, a personal best in his 11-season career. Given the narrative that attaches to Erskine (that he isn’t quick enough or well-rounded enough to take on a heavy minute load), you would think that high-volume minutes he logs puts the club in a bad situation. Last year, the Caps were 7-2-0 in games in which Erskine recorded at least 20 minutes of ice time, and both losses were of the one-goal variety (3-2 to Ottawa and 2-1 to the Rangers, both on the road).
However, there is the matter of Erskine being 33 years old with a history of injury. He lost a quarter of last season to an upper body injury and has played only 58 percent of the regular season games scheduled over his seven seasons with the Caps. One has to think that someone is going to be occupying that 4D spot a significant amount of the time in Erskine’s place (all other things being equal, like any further personnel moves).
In the end…
John Erskine seems to be one of those players for whom fans are always thinking of or looking for a replacement. He lacks foot speed, he doesn’t have any offensive game, he’s…something. There might have been some ominous signs about his game in last spring’s playoff loss to the New York Rangers. The Rangers scored 14 even strength goals in the seven-game series. Erskine was on ice for eight of them. He had the worst Corsi/on-ice value of any Capital defenseman and had the worst relative Corsi (his value on ice less his off-ice value). And, regression being what it is, his PDO value (best among Caps defensemen during the regular season) was the second worst among defensemen in the playoffs for Washington.
Last season, Erskine skated more than 75 percent of his 5-on-5 time with John Carlson as his partner. Whether that is how things will unfold this season is something that bears watching. The Caps are not particularly settled once you get past their top three of Mike Green, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson. Erskine, Jack Hillen, Steve Oleksy, Tomas Kundratek, and Dmitry Orlov could be competing for time on that second pair. If Erskine wins the competition, it would seem likely that one of the others is going to have to fill in from time to time, perhaps significant minutes. Because, while Erskine is one of those players who gives a supreme effort despite what others might view as shortcomings, the fruits of that effort often reveal themselves as time lost. Being of limited range did not hurt Bob Dylan much. For John Erskine, it might be a different story.
Projection: 59 games, 2-5-7, minus-3
Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America