The arrival of an entirely new coaching staff at the start of the season gave every player on the Washington Capitals’ roster a clean slate to make an impression. For defenseman John Erskine, it was precisely the opportunity he needed to prove he could still be an effective NHL defenseman.
Since making his season debut under Coach Adam Oates on Jan. 25 at New Jersey, Erskine has earned the trust and confidence of the bench boss. He’s played no fewer than 16 minutes in any of the 11 games he’s appeared in and served as a reliable and physical presence on the blue line.
“They talked about that he couldn’t handle or hasn’t handled too many minutes before, but I think it’s probably more a product that he just hasn’t got them,” Oates said. “He’s played well and good for him.”
Last season, then-coach Dale Hunter all but discarded the rugged defenseman. Erskine played only 28 regular season games in 2011-12 and was in the lineup for just seven of 38 games beginning in January before he was placed on injured reserve.
Erskine’s always been a well-liked member of the dressing room – he has a wry sense of humor and can swap stories about everything from his young kids to tattoos to his fondness for NASCAR — regardless whether he’s playing consistently. But it was clear he was ready to make an impression and show that he deserved a better chance than he got last season.
Now that he’s found a regular spot in the lineup, Erskine is focusing on the present.
“Last year I’ve put behind me. It wasn’t my favorite hockey year, but things are off to a better start for me this year for me,” Erskine said. “The coaches have been giving me minutes and I’ve been playing with confidence. Good things are happening.”
Erskine, 32, brings a physicality to Washington’s defense that no other player on the roster can provide and not just when it comes to dropping the gloves if need be. At 6-4, 220 pounds he’s particularly adept at winning puck battles along the boards and clearing out opponents from in front of the Capitals’ net.
He’s recently been paired with John Carlson and the 23-year-old puck-mover says that Erskine’s served as a strong complement to his game and helped him be more effective at getting up ice.
“He’s hard on guys in the corner and with our new system, our d-zone, so to speak, he lodges the puck. So I’ve found that I’ve gotten to get up the ice a lot more and join the play and just be involved,” Carlson said. “He’s a good battler. And we play – in our new system we play a lot [closer] together. So for us, me and him, it’s not about making these big, rink-wide d-to-d passes or stuff like that. It’s just little chips here and there and supporting each other.”
Karl Alzner added that Erskine’s presence alone can help tip things in the Capitals favor in their own end.
“When we can have him in there, it just changes kind of the whole dynamic,” Alzner said. “It sometimes makes you think twice to go in front of the net and doing something on the ice that you might not normally do. He’s our guy for that.”
General Manager George McPhee said the Capitals were considering a contract extension for Erskine this summer but they wanted to “make sure he got back on his game.” Erskine did and on Monday he was rewarded with a two-year, $3.925 million extension.
“He’s a Washington Capital. He’s been here seven years and he’ll be here a couple more years at least,” McPhee said. “He’s really improved as a player. He plays a lot now. He’s a good penalty killer. He brings some size and some reach and some grit that we like. It was a contract that made sense for us, so we’re willing to go ahead and do it.”
A year ago, Erskine wasn’t preparing for an important divisional matchup but rather watching from the press box uncertain when he might get back in the lineup. A year ago, re-signing with the Capitals seemed unlikely at best.
“Not here,” Erskine said. “I was thinking maybe with another team, but things have worked out this season and I’m glad to be here for a couple more years.”