Monday, May 20, 2013

Washington Capitals: 2012-2013 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Erskine

John Erskine

“Success, remember is the reward of toil.”

-- Sophocles

When the 2013 season started, the Washington Capitals had a depth chart for defensemen that might have looked like this…
  • Mike Green
  • Karl Alzner
  • John Carlson
  • Roman Hamrlik
  • Dmitry Orlov
  • Jack Hillen
One of the odd men out in that scenario was John Erskine, who between assorted injuries (shoulder, lower body) and healthy scratches was coming off a 2011-2012 season in which he played in only 28 games.

Erskine’s 2013 season was not much different from his 2011-2012 season with respect to the injury bug – he missed 12 games in March due to an upper-body injury – and he missed another three games in February for elbowing Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers.  But he did dress for 30 games, and by the end of the season, with Hamrlik waived and off to the New York Rangers, Orlov injured and trying to rehabilitate his game with the Hershey Bears in the AHL, and Hillen injured in the first game of the season and trying to work his way back into the lineup after missing 25 games, Erskine found himself by year’s end on the second defensive pairing with John Carlson.

For Erskine it was a productive year, in the technical sense of the term.  While his 0.10 goals-per-game was modest, it was the best such mark he posted over an 11-year career.  His 0.20 points-per-game was his best since posting a 0.24 points-per-game mark in in first year with the Capitals in 2006-2007.  He was plus-10 over 30 games, a plus-27 pace over 82 games, also a career best.  His 32 shots on goal in 30 games was the only season in his career in which he averaged more than a shot per game. 

The problem for Erskine was, as it has been in so many of his seasons with the Capital, injuries.  In seven years with the Caps, Erskine has missed 121 games to injury or illness (, including the 12 he missed in the 2013 season due to an upper body injury. 

Although the games played did not change much for Erskine this season – 30 this year, 28 last season – the ice time did.  Befitting his partnership with John Carlson on the second defensive pairing (78 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time was spent with Carlson), Erskine’s total ice time jumped from 12:05 per game to 18:27, and his even strength ice time jumped from 11:33 per game to 16:13.  It amounted to more than one extra shift per period per game (17.5 shifts per game in 2011-2012 to 21.9 shifts per game in 2013).

The thing is with that pairing is that Erskine’s influence – or at least his presence – had a salutary effect on Carlson.  When on ice together, Carlson’s 5-on-5 goals for were better (0.939 GF/20 vs. 0.824 GF/20 when apart), the goals against were better (0.692 GA/20 vs. 0.733 when apart, numbers from  There was not a lot of ice time with these players spent apart, but in terms of even strength outcomes, Erskine did not appear to be a liability.  Of course, that also might be tempered by the fact that the top four forwards with whom Erskine shared 5-on-5 ice time ice time were, in order: Mike Ribeiro, Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer, and Nicklas Backstrom.

Odd Erskine Stat… John Erskine scored three goals for the Caps this season, all of which came at Verizon Center, and all of which came in noteworthy games.  His first of the season put the Caps ahead to stay in what would become Adam Oates’ first win as head coach, a 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on January 27th.  His second goal came on February 26th in a 3-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, which spoiled Alexander Semin’s first game in Washington since leaving the club in free agency after the 2011-2012 season.  His third goal came on March 7th in a 7-1 win against the Florida Panthers.  His goal, the first of the contest, set in motion a four-goal barrage in 6:12, the second-fastest four-goal start in team history.

Game to Remember… April 23rd vs. Winnipeg.  John Erskine was the emergency goaltender of sorts on the evening on which the Capitals clinched the Southeast Division title.  Just one minute after Matt Hendricks scored for the Caps to post the home team to a 1-0 lead, Erskine dove through the crease to block a Bryan Little shot that was targeted to the back of an empty net.  Then, with the clock ticking toward 6:00 remaining in the first period, it was Erskine again, sweeping the puck off the goal line after a deflection of a shot by Aaron Gagnon (who Erskine was tying up in the low slot) hit goaltender Braden Holtby and climbed over his shoulder to fall into the crease.  Erskine added an assist on the goal that would give the Caps the lead for good, and as if to punctuate his performance, took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty with 22 seconds left in the 5-3 win.

Game to Forget… February 12th vs. Florida.  Florida proved a pesky adversary on this night.  The Caps scored first, but Florida took leads on three separate occasions, taking a 5-3 lead on goals straddling the second intermission, both of which Erskine was on ice for, making it a total three such on-ice goals for Erskine in the game.  He added a penalty for good measure.  It was the only game all season in which Erskine finished as bad as minus-2.

Post season… Live by the second pairing, die by the second pairing.  Erskine tied with John Carlson – his second pairing defensive partner – for the most goals scored against the Caps while on ice (eight) in the seven-game loss to the New York Rangers.  He also did not finish any of the seven games against the New York Rangers in plus territory (minus-4 overall).  He is not expected to provide anything more than serendipitous offense, but he did not record a shot on goal in any of the last three games of the series and was last among Caps defensemen in that regard overall (six shots on goal for the series).

In the end…

John Erskine almost never lacks for effort, but one still has the feeling that he would be a much better third-pair defenseman than a solution as a second-pair defenseman with John Carlson.  It was the second pair that was exploited by the New York Rangers in the playoffs, denting it for half of the goals the Rangers scored in the series.  When Erskine was getting significant minutes against the Southeast Division, he was fine – 2-2-4, plus-10 in 12 games.  But in 25 games outside the division (including playoffs), he was 1-2-3, minus-4.  In a sense Erskine is the canary in the coal mine, the signal of questionable blue line depth.  Circumstance led to Erskine taking second pair minutes this season – Roman Hamrlik not performing as expected, then waived; Dmitry Orlov and Jack Hillen suffering injuries, the inability of Jeff Schultz to dent the lineup.  That does not mean Erskine is a solution at that position.  Hard worker though he is, there are better ways to employ his effort.

Grade: B-

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals: 2012-2013 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Carlson

John Carlson

“Life is about growth. People are not perfect when they're 21 years old.”

-- Bill Walton

John Carlson struggled mightily in the last half of the 2011-2012 season.  He was 4-8-12, minus-20, over his last 52 games.  It was hardly the expected result of a promising former first-round draft pick who showed so much promise over his first 100 games.  But when he turned things around with a solid playoff performance in 2012, much was expected of Carlson this season.

Did he deliver?  Well, yes and no.  The start of his season looked a little too much like the start of last season.  It seemed as if every time that an opponent scored a goal against the Caps, Carlson had a good look at it.  He was on ice for 41 of the 82 goals scored against Washington over the Caps’ first 27 games. 
That ratio improved a lot for Carlson down the stretch.  He was on ice for only 20 of the 48 goals scored against Washington over the Caps’ last 21 games.

Carlson’s uncertain start and stronger finish not only looks a lot like last year’s performance, it looks a bit like that of his erstwhile partner, Karl Alzner.  Carlson spent more time on ice at 5-on-5 with three defensemen other than Alzner (79:38), including Jeff Schultz (86:06), who played in only 26 games this season.  Carlson spent 46 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with John Erskine on what would be the Caps second defensive pairing by year end. 

Overall (and that is an important word here), Carlson had a better regular season this season than last.  His goals/60 minutes at 5-on-5 were up (0.173 to 0.445). His assists/60 minutes at 5-on-5 were up (0.564 to 0.667).  His shots were up (4.945 to 5.410), individual Fenwick (6.853 to 7.410), and individual Corsi (from 10.193 to 10.300, all numbers from

These numbers are not unexpected, though, since he was often matched with superior offensive talent.  Again, from, the offensive quality of teammates was improved (from 0.5 to 12.9 on this particular measure, “HARO/QOT,” again from, while the defensive quality of his competition was inferior (dropped from -11.2 to -24.8 on the “HARD/QOC” measure).  And this is not a surprise, either, when you understand that the forwards with whom Carlson was matched most often at 5-on-5 in ice time were, in order, Alex Ovechkin, Mike Ribeiro, Nicklas Backstrom, and Troy Brouwer, all of whom Carlson spent more than five minutes per game of 5-on-5 time skating with this season.

Odd Carlson Stat… This might become its own feature, but there is the matter of that “Southeast Division” effect happening here.  Carlson was 3-9-12, plus-19 against the other Southeast Division teams in 18 games, 3-7-10, minus-8, in 30 games against everyone else.  And for your bonus stat, Carlson scored three goals against the Southeast, all in wins, and scored three goals outside the division, all in losses.

Game to Remember… April 23rd vs. Winnipeg.  In Game 46 of the regular season the Caps had a chance to clinch the Southeast Division and a three-seed in the playoffs with a win over the Winnipeg Jets.  The Caps had already blown a two-goal lead and were in jeopardy of blowing a one-goal lead in the third period against the visiting Jets.  It was John Carlson on the ice in the last minute (with John Erskine) to protect that one-goal margin, and the choice worked for the Caps when Alex Ovechkin scored an empty-net goal to seal a 5-3 division-clinching win.  Carlson had only one shot on the evening (no points), but he was a plus-3 in more than 20 minutes of ice time.

Game to Forget… January 24th through January 27th.  This is, as you might guess, a multi-game horror show for Carlson.  The Caps had a stretch of three games in four nights against Montreal, New Jersey, and Buffalo.  From the 3:47 mark of the second period in the first game of this set, against Montreal, to the 9:34 mark of the first period of the last game in the set, against Buffalo, Carlson was on ice for all eight goals scored against the Caps.  The Caps lost to the Canadiens (4-1), lost to the Devils in overtime (3-2), and allowed the first goal to the Sabres (the eighth in the sequence for Carlson) in what would be a 3-2 Capitals comeback win.

Post-season…  The second defensive pair for the Capitals had a tough series against the Rangers.  It was a return to the struggles that Carlson experienced early in the regular season in the past two years.  He (and partner John Erskine) was on ice for eight of the 16 goals scored by the Rangers in the series, seven of those goals coming in losses, four of them in the third periods of games.  And Carlson was not making it up in the offensive end.  He had one point in the series, an assist on the first goal in a 4-3 Game 3 loss.

In the end…

John Carlson is still waiting to put that whole season together.  He had a decent regular season, overall, even with the consistency issues early on.  His post-season was, to put it mildly, disappointing.  That is the opposite from the 2011-2012 season in which he had a disappointing regular season (itself surprising, given his experience in juniors with Dale Hunter), followed by a solid post-season.  One could make the argument that he has not improved much (or at least as much as folks might have hoped) since his rookie season in which he finished fifth in Calder Trophy voting as top rookie, and the highest vote-getter among defensemen.

The lingering question from this season, and the playoffs in particular, is whether Carlson’s inconsistency was a product of a lack of development on his part or being paired primarily with a defenseman who might be better suited to a third pair.  The second pair was the one exploited by the Rangers in their playoff series (no defenseman was on ice for more 5-on-5 goals scored against than John Erskine: 7 of the 13 scored by the Rangers).

When Carlson was a 21-year old rookie, he was not perfect.  He plays what is according to many the hardest position to master in hockey.  But as a 21-year old rookie he was thought of as the best of his rookie defenseman class (according to Calder Trophy voting).  That was not a great Calder class for defensemen (five of the 17 players receiving Calder votes in that class were defensemen, none ranked higher than fifth in final voting), but Carlson added it to an impressive early-career resume that included the game-winning goal in the 2010 world juniors championship, a fine 2009-2010 season with the Hershey Bears in which the Bears won the Calder Cup, and then a respectable showing in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs in which he was 1-3-4, plus-6, in a disappointing seven-game loss to Montreal  in the first round.

That was the early-career resume of a player who could be a top-pair defenseman.  Some folks might have been of the view that with that progress he could make Mike Green expendable (or at least a luxury the Caps could afford to let go with his high salary cap hit).  That has not yet come to pass.  For Carlson’s own game, it is now a matter of growth, to become the reliable, consistent two-way defenseman fans saw in the making when he came into the league.

Grade: B-

Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America