Friday, June 03, 2011

2010-2011 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Erskine

John Erskine

Theme: Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.
-- Boris Pasternak

Coming into the 2010-2011 season, Capitals defenseman John Erskine had never played in more than 60 games in one season, never more than 52 games in a season for one team. His career high in goals was two. He never recorded double digits in points, never took more than 50 shots on goal.

Well, wasn’t this year a nice surprise? Erskine – pigeon-holed as a “physical defenseman” of modest (by NHL standards) skills, who might have been penciled in as a 6/7 sort of defenseman for the Caps – finished the regular season having played 73 games (a career high), scoring four goals (another career high), recording seven assists (tying a career high) and 11 points (yup…career high), and had 58 shots on goal (ditto).

Oddly enough, perhaps, he did most of this offensive “damage” in the first half of the season, as his ten-game splits illustrate…

That pace he was on in the first half of the season, had he been able to extend it, might have left him as the Caps’ third leading point getter on the blue line by the end of the season (behind John Carlson and Mike Green). But Erskine reverted to form in the latter half of the season, going 1-1-2, minus-2 in the second half after going 3-6-9, plus-3 in the first half.

It would be damning with faint praise to say Erskine had a pretty good year, “given his talent level.” Uh, he’s an NHL player, which means he’s among the top couple hundred or so of his kind (job title, “hockey defenseman”) on the entire planet. Anyone reading this want to make that claim in their job? That said, the fact that Erskine had a career year in so many respects might be as much a product of players around him. By this we mean that the emergence of a John Carlson or a Karl Alzner allowed Erskine to remain more often within the confines of his productive comfort zone.

An example…John Erskine’s first year with the Capitals was the 2006-2007, one in which he played in 29 games (the low number being largely a product of missing 25 games with a broken foot). He averaged 18:02 in ice time that season. Since then, his ice time has dropped…15:42 in 2007-2008… 16:47 in 2008-2009… 15:58 in 2009-2010… 14:49 this past season. Perhaps managing Erskine’s time more closely – a luxury the Caps could indulge with Carlson and Alzner now gobbling up large chunks of time – allowed him to become more productive in a more limited role. He certainly improved in most respects from the 2009-2010 season…

In fact, Erskine’s quality of competition ranked lowest among all nine Caps defensemen playing in at least 20 games. That has been true in the previous two seasons as well, and he was next to last in the 2007-2008 season. But with less ice time, the exposure to liability was not as great.

There is another set of considerations here with Erskine. Beyond numbers, it would be hard to name a Caps defenseman who gave his “A” effort on a more consistent basis. Indirectly, this might have been evidenced by his finishing with lower than a minus-2 only once in 73 games, and only twice this season did he finish consecutive games on the minus side of the ledger. OK, last year those occurrences were “never” and “once,” but last year the Caps steamrolled teams to the tune of better than a goal-per-game winning margin. This year, with the Caps playing games with much thinner average margins of victory, a defenseman with the alleged liabilities of an Erskine would have been harder to hide, or at least hide from the numbers. Erskine accounted well for himself.

Odd Erskine Fact…Plus-11 at home, minus-10 on the road.

Game to Remember… February 16, 2011. In a game in Anaheim against the Ducks, the home team was on the long end of a 5-4 puck fest late in the second period. With 3:13 left in the frame, the Ducks’ Andy Sutton boarded Matt Hendricks. Erskine jumped in to get his pound of flesh from Sutton. He was given an instigator, a fighting major, and a ten-minute misconduct for his trouble, although he did win the fight (and Sutton got his own “two and five” for boarding and fighting). The Caps would have to kill another penalty later in that period, but they came out smoking in the third, getting a goal from Mike Knuble on a breakaway in the first minute, then getting two more (to Anaheim’s one) while holding he Ducks to five third period shots in stealing a 7-6 win. Erskine did not skate another shift after that, but maybe he played his part in kicking the Caps up a notch for the third period.

Game to Forget… November 19, 2010. The Caps were on an 8-0-1 roll when they went to Atlanta to visit the Thrashers. The Caps had just beaten Atlanta, 6-4, only five days before. But the Caps stepped in a big steaming pile, and Erskine certainly didn’t step around it. In less than 14 minutes of work he was on the ice for three goals against (his season-worst minus-3 the result) and took a late elbowing penalty in a 5-0 loss.

Post Season… Not too good. Erskine was on ice for seven of the 24 goals scored against the Caps, which in and of itself is not necessarily bad (he was a plus-1 for the post season). But he was on the ice for five of the 16 goals scored against Washington in the second round series against Tampa Bay. Given his ice time and the matchups one would want to get, that’s a high number, especially since he was on the ice for three goals scored by Sean Bergenheim. Tampa’s forward had a Drucian post season (nine goals in 16 games, four of them against the Caps), and Erskine got to see much of it from entirely too close a vantage point.

In the end, the Caps got more out of John Erskine this season than perhaps fans might have expected. Erskine was on ice for 41 goals in 73 games (by way of comparison, Mike Green was on for 40 in 49 games). On ice for 0.56 goals/game, Erskine experienced a marked drop from his being on ice for 0.64 goals against in 2009-2010. Yes, that might be a reflection of the Caps shifting to a more defensive posture generally, but Erskine wasn’t a “weak link” in that change. The post-season revealed some problems, but we think Caps fans should be more pleased with John Erskine’s contribution in the regular season portion of the 2010-2011 season.

Grade: B-

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images North America)

2010-2011 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Carlson

John Carlson

Theme: Toil to make yourself remarkable by some talent or other
-- Seneca

OK, you’ve just made your NHL debut two months before your 20th birthday, then you score the game-winning goal in overtime in the World Junior Championship title game (and are named to the WJC all-star team for good measure) a few days before you turn 20 years old. You are recalled by the Caps two weeks later and finish the regular season with the big club by going plus-11 in 22 games. Then, with your team having lost its first playoff game in the post season at home and down a goal late in the third period of Game 2, in danger of going down 0-2, you score the game-tying goal with 81 seconds left and save, at least for the moment, the season (the Caps going on to win that game in overtime). After your team is eliminated in the post season, you go back down to Hershey, where not only does your team skate off with the championship, but you score the game-winning goal in the Calder Cup-clinching game.

And you’re not even “technically” a rookie in the NHL…how the hell do you top that season as you embark on your NHL rookie campaign?

Meet John Carlson, Real American Hero and Man with a Flair for the Dramatic. Absent curing cancer, solving global warming, stabilizing U.S. currency, and single-handedly winning the war on poverty (or drugs, terror, whatever), anything he did this season might be viewed as underachieving. But he is a hockey player, and a mighty fine one. Did we say he will not turn 22 until next January?

As for his 2010-2011 season, we can start with his overall numbers through his ten-game splits…

Now, let’s put them in context. Among Washington defensemen, Carlson…

-- Tied for the team lead in games played (82, with Karl Alzner)
-- Was second in goals scored (seven, to Mike Green’s eight)
-- Led the team in assists (30) and overall scoring (37 points)
-- Led in plus-minus (plus-21)
-- Led in game-winning goals (three)
-- Led in shots on goal (144)
-- Was second in total average ice time per game (22:38, among defensemen playing at least 20 games for the Caps)
-- Led in blocked shots (160)
-- Led in takeaways (60)

Among his rookie defenseman cohorts, Carlson…

-- Was the only one to play in all 82 games (P.K. Subban was next with 77 games played)
-- Tied for fourth in goals
-- Tied for second in assists
-- Finished fourth in total points
-- Tied for first in game winning goals (with Cam Fowler and Subban)
-- Was second in shots on goal (to Subban)
-- Was second in plus-minus (to Adam McQuaid)
-- Finished first in total average ice time per game
-- Finished first in blocked shots
-- Finished first in takeaways

It wasn’t all unicorns and glitter – Carlson did lead all rookie defensemen in giveaways, and only four rookie blueliners were on the ice for more goals against, but in a perverse sense even those numbers were a reflection of the responsibility placed on Carlson’s (and his usual partner, Karl Alzner’s) shoulders. If you’re out there long enough, largely facing the opponent’s best, you’re going to get beat. His rookie competitors did not as often enjoy the level of responsibility Carlson was asked to bear.

Carlson showed considerable consistency in his offensive production across his ten-game splits, and he finished strong (2-7-9, plus-7 in his last dozen games of the season while averaging almost 24 minutes a night). It led to a season that was, even if put on an equivalent games played basis, an improvement over the previous season:

Here’s the thing, though. Of 173 defensemen in the NHL who played in at least 50 games (regardless of years in the league) only 23 played against higher quality competition than did Carlson (statistics from – higher than Drew Doughty or Shea Weber or Christian Ehrhoff or Tyler Myers, to name a few you might recognize. No rookie defenseman played to a higher level of competition than did Carlson.

Odd Carlson Fact…John Carlson played the last 33 games of the season never having skated less than 20 minutes in any of them. The next longest streak of 20-plus minute games to end the season among rookie defensemen? Seventeen (P.K. Subban).

Game to Remember…October 9, 2010. In the home opener for the Caps against the New Jersey Devils, the Caps spotted the Devils the first goal 1:49 into the game. Carlson got it back less than a minute later when he picked up a loose puck outside the Devils’ blue line, skated in, and wristed the puck past goalie Martin Brodeur and just under the crossbar for his first goal of the season. After the Devils would grab the lead once more, Carlson assisted on the next two goals (the second of which was the game winner) to give him a 1-2-3 night in a Caps 7-2 win in which Carlson earned the second star.

Game to Forget…February 25, 2011. Yes, the same game as we noted Karl Alzner might want to forget, but when you are one another’s partner, it should not be surprising. In a 6-0 loss to the New York Rangers, Carlson was on the ice for four goals against. At the other end, he attempted nine shots (two on goal) on a bizarre night when 28 of the Caps’ 72 shot attempts came from five defensemen (this was the game in which Mike Green suffered a concussion at the hands, so to speak, of Derek Stepan). None of Carlson’s shots found their mark.

Post Season…It wouldn’t appear as if Carlson had an especially bad post season (2-1-3, minus-2 in nine games), but Carlson struggled in the Rangers series (0-1-1, minus-3 in five games, on ice for four of the eight goals scored against in the series), and his two goals in the series against Tampa came in Games 3 and 4, after the Lightning had established a 2-0 advantage in games (although he was on the ice for only four of 16 goals scored against the Caps in the four games).

In the end, Carlson’s season might not have been as remarkable as the season preceding it, but he enjoyed an excellent season, nevertheless. We were leery of projecting him at even as many as 28 points when the season started. That he ended up with 37 (still in the top-35 among all defensemen) was a pleasant surprise. His ice time and quality of competition faced did not faze him, although he was a bit more out of his depth in this year’s playoffs. He was certainly worthy of being in the Calder Trophy conversation as the top rookie in the league, and he was arguably the top defenseman in this rookie class. Flashy? Perhaps not, but it is a very good foundation on which Carlson can embark on a long NHL career.

Now…about that global warming thing.

Grade: B+