The Capitals were without rugged defenseman John Erskine for a second straight game Sunday, and at this point it’s uncertain how much time the 33-year-old will miss. But if Erskine is absent for any additional length of time in this shortened season, it will certainly test the Capitals’ defense.
“It’s another opportunity for someone to step in and get minutes and show they can do the job,” Coach Adam Oates said prior to the 4-1 loss to the Rangers. Afterward, he didn’t give an updated timeline on how long he expected Erskine to be out.
Erskine suffered what appeared to be an injury to his left hand or wrist early in the Capitals’ 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders Saturday. He skated just two shifts against the Islanders before the injury and while he took warmup Sunday before the game against the Rangers, Erskine was ultimately scratched from the contest.
The immediate effect of Erskine’s absence was the addition of Tom Poti, who was a healthy scratch in the two previous games, but it also adds responsibility across the board on the blue line. And coincidence or not, the Capitals are 0-7-0 without Erskine in the lineup this season.
“John brings a lot of things. He brings that grit, that toughness, that sense of ‘I really don’t want to go get that puck because I gotta go against Ersky.’ Obviously it’s crucial,” Matt Hendricks said. “He’s been putting up points. We’ve missed that. He’s a leader in our locker room. He’s just a great person, a great teammate.”
Erskine has taken on a top-four role this season, averaging 18 minutes 24 seconds of ice time per game and skating against top opponents alongside John Carlson. That’s a lot of important ice time to allocate elsewhere, and if the Rangers game is any indication, it won’t be picked up exclusively by Poti, who skated 12:59.
Erskine has chipped in offensively with three goals and two assists so far this season, and is the only real source of snarl on the back end. None of the Capitals’ other options are as well-equipped to clear out opponents from the crease or overpower a foe along the boards.
Newcomer Steve Oleksy, who has played four NHL games, is the most physical of the bunch and can dish out a quality hip check but at 6-0, 190 pound, he’s not the same kind of imposing presence as Erskine.
While it would benefit the Capitals to have a little more grit, Oates doesn’t want to see the defensemen try to play outside their comfort zone just because Erskine is out.
“It would help, but you can’t ask a guy to be something he’s not. You’ve got to ask a guy to play and do his job,” Oates said. “Stevie brings a little bit of that to the game, which is nice, and he’s done a good job since he’s been here, but you can’t ask a guy to be something he’s not.”