Erskine Has Earned His Keep
By Scott Lowe
Last year at the trade deadline the Washington Capitals tinkered with their high-powered lineup, bringing in veterans such as Joe Corvo, Scott Walker and Eric Belanger. Even though they were running away with the Eastern Conference and the Presidents’ Trophy, it was clear that someone in the organization wasn’t thrilled with the tenuous high-wire act that was producing a ton of high-scoring victories while raising questions about defensive responsibility.
There was some confusion in the message that the organization sent with the deadline deals, however. The Caps traded solid defensive-minded defenseman Brian Pothier, a better-than-adequate puck-mover, and openly discussed using Belanger, a strong two-way player and good faceoff guy, as a second-line center. In lieu of Pothier, Washington added the offensive-oriented (and defensively deficient) Corvo at a time when head coach Bruce Boudreau was attempting to rein in his high-flying offensive machine in favor of a more playoff-favorable, close-checking style.
The end result? Belanger clearly was a better fit as a third-line center than skating alongside more skilled players such as Alex Semin and Tomas Fleischmann. Fleischmann was moved to center, a key defensive position, late in the season and saw his offensive production nullified while struggling to grasp the need to play both ends of the ice. And Corvo seemed confused about his role with the team from Day 1, never really contributing much at either end of the ice.
Walker, perhaps the best-suited of all the players acquired to add something that the Caps sorely needed – a grinder/agitator with playoff experience – started with a bang, suffered an injury and then became victim of a numbers game until Boudreau couldn’t stomach any more of Fleischmann’s act. In a desperation move to add some grit, Walker was given a sweater for Game 7 against Montreal. We all know how that went.
One lineup adjustment that had to be made after the deadline acquisitions that for some reason went overlooked at the time was the benching of John Erskine. Certainly from a straight talent perspective you wouldn’t play Erskine over Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti, Corvo, John Carlson or Karl Alzner (who was toiling in Hershey at the time).
The problem with that thinking, however, is that talent alone doesn’t win championships – especially Stanley Cup championships. John Erskine, for his lack of speed, flash and flair, had developed into a tough, dependable blueliner who wouldn’t let other teams take liberties in front of the Caps’ net and who was willing and more than able to protect Washington’s skill guys. He was just the type of honest, hard-working, physical and intimidating presence that the team needed in the playoffs. Unfortunately, in an uncalculated after-effect of “Christmas in March,” he ended up on the outside looking in – and we will never know how much that impacted Washington’s playoff performance a year ago.
Fast forward to March 2011, and the Caps were at it again, with General Manager George McPhee wheeling and dealing in search of the missing pieces that might bring a Stanley Cup to the nation’s capital. Gifted two-way forward Marco Sturm was plucked off of waivers. Puck-moving defenseman Dennis Wideman was brought in and Jason Arnott, a true second-line center with successful playoff experience, was acquired.
A quick glance indicated that these moves made all the sense in the world. Sturm could add punch to the second or third line and had a reputation as a solid two-way player and strong penalty killer. Wideman, despite posting a minus-23 for a terrible team in Florida, was going to help resurrect a dormant power play that was without the injured Green and, according to Sturm, was “Boston’s best defenseman in the playoffs” just two seasons prior. Arnott was a big body with tremendous skill who had scored a Stanley Cup-winning goal. Say no more.
Each player made significant positive contributions right away, with Wideman proving to be as good in his own end as he was moving the puck and quarterbacking the power play. The Caps’ fanbase was starting to believe, but wait, where did that leave John Erskine? At the time of the deals, with Green still out because of post-concussion symptoms, and Tom Poti, the team’s best defenseman in the playoffs the previous year, nursing a season-long groin injury, Erskine’s place in the lineup was secure. But what would happen when they all came back?
Again, a quick look at a potentially healthy defensive unit wasn’t promising for Erskine’s postseason playing time: Wideman, Scott Hannan, Poti, Green, Schultz, Alzner and Carlson. That’s seven right there. Is it possible that Erskine would be the eighth guy this year? That scenario seemed entirely plausible, but you never heard a peep of discontent out of Erskine. He just let his play do the talking, and while others sat on the sidelines and recovered from injuries, Erskine simply ingrained himself as an invaluable member of a defensive group that helped lead the Caps to a boatload of low-scoring, one-goal, playoff-style victories and a 16-3-1 record down the stretch.
Along the way Wideman was sidelined with a horrific injury and Green returned. Poti began skating regularly with the team, but when asked about the possibility of him returning to the lineup Boudreau said, “The way our defense is playing right now I’d have to think it would take an injury of some sort for him to get back into the lineup.”
So Erskine was in, and he did not disappoint, anchoring a defensive unit that allowed just eight goals in five games vs. the Rangers and compiling a plus-two rating during a series in which the Caps outscored New York by a total of just five goals over five contests (13-8). More than that, however, he was the physical, get-under-your-skin answer to Ranger antagonizers Sean Avery, Brandon Prust and Brian Boyle.
Erskine policed the post-whistle antics of New York’s version of Three Stooges with big hits in the corners, strong and physical play in front of the net and maybe an occasional post-whistle shove or face wash – that in addition to his solid and consistent overall play. Late in the third period of Game 2, with the Rangers rallying and goalie Michal Neuvirth caught out of position, Erskine made a key glove save on a shot that was clearly ticketed for the Caps’ empty net. His gritty effort that night was enough to incite a multi-player pileup in the corner as the horn sounded to end Game 3, with Avery, Boyle and Prust deciding they needed to run Erskine from behind to send a message of some sort.
Finally, on Sunday, Erskine ended Washington’s five-game series victory with an exclamation point, dropping the gloves and firing off several rights to the skull of Ruslan Fedotenko after being tackled in the corner behind the play. That prompted Brian McCabe to come to the rescue and was the beginning of 10-player scrum that concluded with Avery, as usual, showing his true colors by attacking the defenseless Matt Hendricks from behind and then skating far enough away so the referees could intervene before Hendricks could get to him. The officials were nice enough to let Avery watch the rest of the loss from the comfort of New York's locker room.
So, at the end of the series, for all the talk of Avery’s line playing so well and getting under the skin of Washington players by utilizing questionable tactics, Erskine turned the tables on Mr. Sloppy Seconds and his band of brothers simply by playing the game the right way.
There’s a lot to be said for that. It’s something that was sorely missing from the Caps’ arsenal a year ago, but it seems as though John Erskine can never rest easy. Poti is skating harder every day. Wideman has been skating for a week now and could be ready for the second round. Who would be the odd man now out if one of them returns?
Boudreau already has answered that question in regards to a return by Poti, but what about Wideman? There’s no question that he belongs in the lineup if healthy, but last year’s disappointing team result paired with Erskine’s play in the opening round – and all year long – indicate that Erskine may be as valuable as anyone on the roster this time of year.
The Caps tried it without him a year ago and already are a step ahead of that disappointing showing with Erskine in the fold. Don’t know about you, but it sounds to me like he’s earned a permanent place in the lineup.