Monday, September 23, 2013

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 7

Only one week to Opening Night, which means Fearless is down to number 7 in the elements of the period table.  Who might the Washington Capital we find here?...


At what scientists refer to as “standard temperature and pressure (pretty much what you live in),” nitrogen is virtually inert.  It does not do much, does not react with much.  It is, however, a very important element for how it behaves as an element.  It binds with itself to form the molecule “N2.”  This bond between the two atoms of nitrogen is extremely strong, difficult to break in the process of chemical reactions.  That strong bond reflects a large amount of stored energy, which is released when compounds containing nitrogen are subjected to combustion or, in the case of organic materials, decay.  Nitrogen occurs in all organisms, primarily in proteins and nucleic acids, essential building blocks of life processes and structures.

Some of the usual suspects (especially those involved in the discovery of oxygen) were present for the discovery of nitrogen – Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Joseph Priestly, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier.  But it was Daniel Rutherford, a Scottish chemist, who is credited with discovering it.  The problem, it turned out, was naming the element.  Rutherford called it “fixed air.”  Priestly referred to it as “phlogisticated air.”  Lavoisier called it “mephitic air,” then “azote,” from the Greek word “azotos,” meaning “lifeless.”

The word “nitrogen” would not come for almost another 20 years, and we have Jean-Antoine Chaptal to thank for it.  His thinking was logical in a “chemistry” sense… “nitre” (another name for potassium nitrate, or “salt peter”), from which nitric acid could be produced, in which “nitrogen” was an essential element.  “Nitrogen” was picked as a combination of “nitre” and the Greek word “genes,” meaning forming…”nitre forming,” get it?

Nitrogen has a fair number of practical applications.  For instance, it is used as a food preservative or in fertilizers.  It has applications in electronics and in incandescent light bulbs.  It can be used to reduce fire hazards in environments with fuels present.  It can be a replacement for air in filling tires for high-performance applications (automotive or aircraft, generally).  It can be used to pressurize kegs of beer or ale.  It is also found in the explosives nitroglycerin and trinitrotoluene (TNT).  It is found in “super glue” and in Kevlar.  In its liquid form it is used as a refrigerant and can be used for some medical procedures (removing warts, for example). 

Nitrogen is an element that binds strongly with itself, brings with it a strong binding energy, can be found in a wide variety of applications, including: agriculture, fire management, food industries, medicine, refrigeration, and explosives.  Compounds containing nitrogen are very versatile and practical.  It might not have a flashy analog among hockey players, but it does reflect a certain essential and useful character.  Maybe not a top-line center, but a second-line version who contributes the necessary offense and responsible defense to make a good team a contender.

Nitrogen…the “Mikhail Grabovski” of the elements of the periodic table.

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Defensemen: John Erskine

John Erskine

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.

Fearless’ Take…

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.

Cheerless’ Take…

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

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 8

We’re down to number 8 in Fearless’ look at the elements of the periodic table (he skipped number 9…Cheerless kept yammering about being anti-fluoridation or some such thing), which means we are down to…


Most of what you are is oxygen.  We do not mean in some metaphysical sense, that oxygen feeds your soul or something. No, most of what you are in the physical sense is oxygen, because it binds with hydrogen, producing water.  Water comprises most of the mass of living organisms.  It is that ubiquitous, that necessary for life processes.

When it is not cozying up to hydrogen to form water molecules, it exists naturally as a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas.  But if you think those qualities make it dull and lifeless, well…

It’s in the name.  “Oxygen” comes from two Greek words – “oxys,” meaning “acid,” and “genes,” meaning “producer.”  But we get ahead of ourselves a bit.  Way back in the 2nd century, BCE (“Before the Common Era”), a fellow by the name of Philo of Byzantium conducted what are thought to be the first experiments on the relationship of combustion to air.  Philo didn’t get things quite right, though, thinking that air was “converted” into fire. 

That’s okay, though.  A lot of experimenters got close to figuring out what was at the heart of combustion, but didn’t quite get there.  Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Boyle, John Mayow – all of them respected figures in the annals of science – came up short.  Then things kind of took a turn.  A couple of German chemists – Georg Ernst Stahl and J.J. Becher – came up with something called the “phlogiston” theory, an odd duck of an idea that held that combustible materials were of essentially two parts. A “phlogisticated substance (we don’t make this up, we just report it)” that contains “phlogiston,” which is released when burned, and a “dephlogisticate” that is left behind as a result of combustion.

You know what we need now, don’t you?  A Swede!  Yup… Carl Wilhelm Scheele came along in the 1770’s and produced oxygen by heating oxides of mercury.  Only he called it “fire air.” A little later, Joseph Priestly confirmed the finding in England.  Antoine Laurent Lavoisier tried to horn in on the discovery, but he didn’t “discover” this fire air until after Priestly told him how he did it.  What Lavoisier did, though, was establish that the “phlogiston” theory was a crock (it was really, as we all know, a planet in Romulan space), and – this was the important part – establish that air was a mixture of two gases, one of which was what he called “vital air.”  That name being kind of dull, Lavoisier renamed vital air “oxygen.”  In the end, Priestly gets the credit for discovering the element because he published his findings first in what is chemistry’s most famous example of “you snooze, you lose.”  Sorry, Carl Wilhelm.

So now we have this element; what is it good for?  Well, lots.  First, it is an extremely reactive element.  Even though oxygen occurs naturally as a gas, it gets used up in a variety of reactions and has to be replenished in the atmosphere by photosynthesis in plants.  It is essential to biological function, establishing itself in proteins, carbohydrates, fats, inorganic structural elements (teeth, bones), and it is critical to respiratory processes.

It has other applications as well.  For example, oxygen therapy or hyperbaric treatment.  It is used as a breathing gas in pressurized space suits and to assist breathing in low-pressure environments (mountain-climbing, for example).  It is used in steel manufacture and welding.  It is an important element in rocket fuel.

It can be hazardous due to its reactivity.  In high concentrations it can promote rapid combustion.  An oxygen source in close proximity to a fuel source can result in explosion if a triggering mechanism is present.  If liquid oxygen leaches into organic material (that containing carbon), the material can explode spontaneously if jostled or force is applied to it.

What we are left with is an element that is as essential as there is for life processes.  It is the predominant element in the air that we breathe.  It is highly reactive, a critical element in rocket fuel, one capable of contributing to combustion or, in special situations, detonation.  It sounds like a foundational player, one without whom success would be nearly impossible.  A player capable of generating spontaneous reactions from fans with his rushes up ice and his ability to score from almost anywhere.  And, having the atomic number “8,” we have…

Oxygen…the “Alex Ovechkin” of the elements of the periodic table.