-- Jean de La Fontaine
John Erskine’s 2013-2014 season looked a lot like his 2012-2013 season, which looked a lot like his 2011-2012 season. That is not good news. Erskine dressed for only 37 games this season. That happens to be a personal high over the past three seasons over which he appeared in 95 of 212 games. Erskine missed 37 games to injury this past season and another three to a suspension. Thought of early on as a potential second-pair defenseman in 2013-2014, he became part of the parade of defensemen marching through the third pair over the course of the season. As it was his longest string of consecutive games played was 17, from December 15th through January 19th, and he appeared in only two of the Caps last 19 games.
Erskine is not what one would call an offensive defenseman, and his games played do not make for easy evaluation or comparison. But there are a few things to point out. For instance, at 5-on-5, John Erskine finished 176th of 230 defensemen playing at least 25 percent of their teams’ games in goals-for percentage (44.7 percent of all goals scored when he was on ice). He was nestled between Mike Green (175th/44.8 percent) and Karl Alzner (177th/44.6 percent). Oddly enough, though, his goals for percentage on ice relative to the teams’ performance with him not on the ice (+1.5 percent) was 84th in the league and roughly equivalent to teammate John Carlson (+1.6 percent) and the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh (+1.6 percent).
Erskine suffered from the nature of his partners this season, although the suffering might have been mutual. In Erskine’s limited action he played more than 100 5-on-5 minutes with only two partners on defense – Connor Carrick and Steve Oleksy. That is a pair that would finish the season with a combined 95 games of NHL experience. Erskine’s experience with those partners was like night and day, or more precisely early and late.
Erskine played 154 minutes of 5-on-5 time with Oleksy this season, all of it by January 4th, corresponding to Oleksy’s last game of the season with the Caps. Paired with Erskine at 5-on-5, Oleksy had a goals-for/goals-against per 20 minutes of +0.26. That sounds rather good until one looks at Olesky’s 5-on-5 goal differential when apart from Erskine (+0.35). Erskine’s experience with Carrick was a bit different. Carrick’s goal differential per 20 minutes with Erskine at 5-on-5 was 0.00. When apart, though, Carrick’s goal differential was -0.49. Strange results are these.
Fearless’ Take… Did you know that only 13 defensemen in Capitals history have played in more games for the club than John Erskine? He passed Darren Veitch and Yvon Labre this season and now has 350 games played in a Capitals uniform. Only Mike Green among active Capitals have appeared in more games with the club (503).
Cheerless’ Take… Nine defensemen played in at least 20 games for the Caps this season, including John Erskine. Of those nine defensemen Erskine was seventh in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (45.7) and seventh in Fenwick-for percentage (44.7). The only players with lower numbers were Alexander Urbom (44.2/44.2), who is no longer with the club, and Connor Carrick (43.9/42.8), who might have been better served being in Hershey for more of the season.
Odd Erskine Fact… The Caps were 13-17-7 in games in which Erskine appeared and 25-13-7 in games in which he did not.
Game to Remember… January 25th versus Montreal. John Erskine does not score goals often, so those he does get are sort of memorable by definition. However, the one he scored in Montreal on January 25th was bizarre. After a scoreless first period the Caps took the lead 1:46 into the second period on a goal by Alex Ovechkin. Less than two minutes later the Caps started out of their own zone with John Carlson sending the puck up to Troy Brouwer before heading to the bench. Brouwer left a touch pass for Martin Erat, who carried the puck into the Montreal end. Erat put on the breaks at the right wing wall waiting for the play to unfold. He spied Erskine coming late down the middle. Erskine was about to be tied up by Brandon Prust when he sort of half shot, half shoveled the puck at the Canadiens’ net. The puck crawled along the ice past Prust, past P.K. Subban, past Brooks Laich, and between the pads of goalie Carey Price, settling softly in the back of the net to give the Caps a 2-0 lead on their way to a 5-0 win at Bell Centre.
Game to Forget… March 5th versus Philadelphia. The Caps’ schedule for March included a home-and-home set of games against the Flyers, the first in Washington on March 2nd and the second on March 5th in Philadelphia. Washington dropped the front end of the set, 5-4 in overtime, and was looking to salvage a split in Philadelphia. The Flyers got off fast with a pair of goals in the first eight and a half minutes. Then things got angry. In the 12th minute Tom Wilson laid a hit on Brayden Schenn in the Washington end, and as the puck spun around the boards John Erskine put a hit on Vincent Lecavalier. That was merely prelude. Wheh the Caps dumped the puck into the Flyers’ end on the ensuing rush, Luke Schenn laid the lumber to Ryan Stoa.
That brought Wilson back into the picture to take on Schenn. While this was going on, John Erskine stepped in on Wayne Simmonds. That led to a pile up in the corner with Erskine tumbling to the ice, and when Erskine got to his feet it was Lecavalier standing in his way. Erskine and Lecavalier started in on one another, which led to Simmonds coming in to Lecavalier’s assistance. He grabbed Erskine from behind, tying up Erskine from throwing any more punches and leaving Lecavalier free to throw a couple of his own. Erskine went down to end the fracas, and the fall would end Erskine’s night after just 5:34 of time on ice. The Caps went on to lose the contest, 6-4, and Erskine would miss the next ten games.
In the end…
Time and circumstance have taken their toll on John Erskine. In seven seasons with the Capitals (not including the abbreviated 48-game 2012-2013 season) he has appeared in more than 55 games in a season only once. It is not for lack of trying or will; Erskine remains, night in and night out, among the hardest workers on the ice when he is in the lineup. One must wonder, though, just how much Erskine has left to give. He will be 34 on Opening Night of the 2014-2015 season, and while that is not inordinately old for a hockey player, his injury history suggests that he might be an “old” 34.
In that respect his 2013-2014 season was not unusual and seems at least as likely as not to serve as a preview of the future. He was available on a limited basis, and both his production and underlying numbers did not suggest a consistent level of effectiveness when he was in the lineup. One might hope for better, but one cannot help but think that the body of work John Erskine put together this season is going to be of the sort he displays going forward.
Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America