SUNRISE, Fla. – Among those back in the Capitals’ lineup Thursday night at the Panthers is veteran defenseman John Erskine, who sat out the last two games before the break as a healthy scratch.
Since undergoing offseason surgery on his left knee last summer, Erskine has struggled to regain strength in the joint, impacting his mobility and effectiveness this season. But while Erskine acknowledges that only time can truly help him get back to full strength, he feels good heading into this matchup against Florida.
“I feel good. I felt good going into the break,” Erskine said. “I think there’s always room for improvement on my knee and it’s going to be an ongoing thing until I get that couple months of strength in it, but going into tonight I feel great.”
When surveying the Capitals’ organizational depth chart Erskine, 33, brings the most physical and gritty presence of all the available defensemen. Tyson Strachan, currently in the AHL, is perhaps the only other blue-liner with those traits.
Coach Adam Oates likes to have that sandpaper element in the lineup when he can, but this year as Erskine’s foot speed took a hit following the surgery. The majority of the games Erskine has missed this season were to give him more rehabilitation time but being a healthy scratch raises concern that the veteran, who is under contract through 2014-15 after signing a two-year, $3.925 million extension last year, may no longer have a regular place in the lineup.
“When he’s healthy he’s an important part of our team. He brings a lot of variables to us but to do that he’s got to be able to play. We need him to be able to move,” Oates said. “He’s not the most fleet-footed guy, we know that, but he’s still got to be able to move and move the puck a little bit. Teams are, it’s a track meet a lot of nights and when he’s going on all cylinders he’s very solid back there.”
Oates made it clear that when Erskine is in the lineup, it’s with the confidence that the veteran will be able to handle his workload.
“You can’t hide someone, we don’t want to hide someone,” Oates said. “If he’s close to 100 percent, he’s a valuable player for us and we’ll play him when he’s like that.”
After missing the last two games before the break and with the Capitals getting players like Mike Green and soon Jack Hillen back from injury, Erskine feels the pressure to secure a place on the roster.
“It’s a confidence thing. Last year when I was in the lineup every night I came to the lineup and didn’t have to worry about it,” Erskine said. “Now it’s in the back of your head, you don’t know what the coaches are thinking. I’ve just got to keep progressing and get my game up there so I’m in the lineup.”