Sunday, September 28, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Defensemen: John Erskine

John Erskine

“My work is a game, a very serious game.”
-- M. C. Escher

Since John Erskine joined the Washington Capitals as a free agent in September 2006, only 12 NHL defensemen have logged more penalty minutes.  The thing is, though, Erskine compiled his 529 penalty minutes in only 350 games, while 11 of the 12 defensemen in front of him on that list did it in more than 400 games, six of them in more than 500 games.

That statistic speaks to the hard way that John Erskine makes a living, something that deserves more respect that it sometimes gets from fans.  He is the closest player – perhaps the only player – resembling a physical defenseman the Caps have had since he arrived.  Consider the list of Capitals defensemen who have played in at least 100 games with the club since Erskine arrived:
  • Mike Green
  • Jeff Schultz
  • Karl Alzner
  • John Carlson
  • Shaone Morrisonn
  • Tom Poti
  • Milan Jurcina
  • Brian Pothier
  • Dmitry Orlov
There are not many defensemen with the adjective “physical” attached to them on that list.  Here is another way to look at it.  Erskine has been involved in 29 regular season fights in a Capitals uniform.  The other eight defensemen on that list above were involved in a combined seven fights in their tenures with Washington.  If the Discovery Channel ever brings back “Dirty Jobs,” John Erskine could host it in place of Mike Rowe.

Unfortunately, doing the dirty work has come at a price for Erskine.  Of the 622 regular season games that could have been played in Erskine’s eight seasons in Washington, he has appeared in only 350 of them, just 56 percent of the total number of games.  Only once – in 2010-2011 when he appeared in 73 games – has Erskine played in more than 52 games in a season with the Caps.  The injuries that accumulated over those eight seasons – foot, thumb, lower body, upper body, concussion, leg, hand, shoulder, knee – have peeled off a lot of games from those in which Erskine might have appeared.

Fearless’ Take…

For all the abuse John Erskine has taken physically over his eight seasons in Washington, he is 14th on the list of games played as a defenseman with the franchise, and it is possible that he passes both Shoane Morrisonn and Rick Green (tied with 377 games apiece) this season.  That experience might not be as big an issue with the addition of Brooks Orpik (703 regular season games) and Matt Niskanen (491 games), but experience can only be earned, and there are young Caps defensemen who are still building on that.  It might require careful management, but Erskine’s experience (not to mention his ability to be a physical presence) can have its place.

Cheerless’ Take…

Cuz, there just isn’t any way to sugar coat this.  The Caps were 13-17-7 in games in which John Erskine appeared last season, 25-13-7 in games he sat out.  What do those fancy stat guys say, “constipation is not causation?”

(Peerless… “correlation is not causation”)

Yeah, that.  But still.  That should be an alarm going off when you consider that the Caps were 21-7-2 with Erskine in the lineup in 2012-2013, 6-11-1 without him, and that was with the same coaching staff (whatever you think of it).

The Big Question… Does John Erskine have a role to play in 2014-2015?

The Caps went out and got two free agent defensemen precisely because of the lack of depth in talent on the blue line in recent years.  While John Erskine is a high-effort player, there is a reasonable question about his being capable, at this point in his career, of being a 16-minute a night player on a contender (he averaged 15:51 a game over his first eight seasons with the Caps). 

He is going to have a hard time cracking the 2014-2015 lineup unless there are injuries or one of the top six (Alzner, Carlson, Green, Niskanen, Orpik, and Orlov) simply goes into the dumper in terms of his performance.  He seems relatively safe to start the season with Orlov still recuperating from a broken arm suffered during last spring’s world championship that could delay his return to the lineup.  There does seem to be a bulls-eye on Erskine with respect to his continued presence on the roster, though.

In the end…

John Erskine has been nothing less than a stand-up guy on a team that did not have much of a physical presence over his eight seasons with the club.  But the physical abuse has taken a toll.  He appeared in only 95 of 212 games over the last three seasons, only 37 of 82 contests last season.  With the additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik for the defense, the Caps do not have a lot of spare minutes on the blue line into which Erskine can be slotted on a regular basis. Orpik, who can provide the physical style of play (within the rules) that Erskine might have provided, has been more durable a player than Erskine, despite being the same age (34).

As far as the physical style of play at the edge of the rules, there were rumblings of the Caps seeking to move Erskine’s contract so that the club could sign Paul Bissonnette, a move that might have save the team a considerable amount from Erskine’s $1,962,500 salary cap hit.  What it probably means is that Erskine is now on the edge of the roster, a 7/8 defenseman on this club.  If the Caps carry only seven defensemen, it would seem he will be in a battle with Jack Hillen for that seventh spot, especially now that Cameron Schilling (a prospect defenseman who is not waiver-exempt) was sent down to Hershey, pending his clearing waivers.

For eight years John Erskine has been a player who as much of more than any other Caps defenseman found himself in serious circumstances on the ice that required the exercise of his physical gifts and temperament.  The roster log jam is a different sort of circumstance in which he finds himself, one that is no less serious.

Projection:  17 games, 0-2-2, minus-2

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

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