Capitals defenseman John Erskine prepares for top-four workload once again

September 23, 2013

John Erskine at Verizon Center during the preseason. (Nick Wass/AP)

John Erskine has heard the talk of young defensemen challenging for his top-four spot and the clamoring for an upgrade on defense. But Erskine knows he has the confidence of the Capitals coaching staff, and with the regular season opener eight days away, that’s all that matters.

“The coaches have put a lot of trust in me; I have to just go with it,” Erskine said earlier in camp. “I’m hoping that I play more minutes out there and get more responsibility, get on the PK a little bit more and stuff like that. I’ve just got to keep my game the same and stay patient.”

Last season, Erskine set a career high in average ice time at 18:28 per game. The new coaching staff gave him a fresh start, and Erskine, 33, saw his responsibilities increase to that of a top-four blueliner skating most often alongside workhorse defenseman John Carlson.

Erskine brings a level of grit the rest of Washington’s defensemen simply can’t, and the grizzled veteran showed he could weather that significant place in the lineup for a chunk of the regular season. So much so that General Manager George McPhee signed Erskine to a two-year, $3.925 million extension. But even with his progress, last year wasn’t without criticisms. His possession numbers left plenty to be desired, and as the year wore on, his play slipped. In the playoffs Erskine was on the ice for eight goals of New York’s 16 goals in seven games.

When training camp opened this fall, though, Erskine was back in his familiar spot with Carlson and readying for another heavy workload. He’s working on returning to full strength after undergoing offseason surgery on his left knee, a procedure to clean up what he called “an injury that’s been bugging me over the years,” and looking forward to earning additional responsibilities.

That opportunity will come, Coach Adam Oates insisted. “We’re going to ask more of him.” And after being questioned about Erskine’s place in the lineup on the first few days of the preseason, Oates made it clear that the Ontario native will not be unseated entering this season.

“He’s not losing his job. He’s not,” Oates said after the Capitals preseason game in Philadelphia last week. “It’s not even up for grabs. He’s top four on our team.”

That vote of confidence certainly seems to indicate that, for the time being, none of the other left-handed defensemen — including Dmitry Orlov and Jack Hillen — is vying for anything more than a spot on the third pair. Oates and the rest of the coaching staff value Erskine’s physical play and see his decline late last season as a reflection of a player skating six to 10 more minutes per night than he did the year before.

Assistant coach Calle Johansson sees Erskine’s importance in the lineup as more than just a physical presence, too. He believes the big defenseman is part of what makes the Capitals work and exist as a strong group.

“Everybody’s comfortable being around John Erskine. He’s an unbelievable team guy, so when he does something good on the ice, that’s the type of player that lifts the whole team,” Johansson said. “Everybody on the bench goes ‘Way to go Ersk’ and everybody’s feeling good about it. He’s one of those guys that is kind of glue for a team.”

But can Erskine handle top-four duties for an 82-game season?

“I certainly hope so. We all have to adjust when you get into a new role,” Johansson said. “You have to play a different game when you play 20, 22 minutes. I have no doubt in my mind if he has to do it he can do it.”

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