Japers' Rink Mailbag: John Erskine, Possession, and Evgeny Kuznetsov

Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Why John Erskine's possession numbers look so good and what Evgeny Kuznetsov's hypothetical role might be in this week's installment of "you ask, we answer."

Our first question this week focuses on when the eye test and the numbers don't match up:

My first response here is that rarely do our eyes or the numbers tell the whole story - numbers often show us things that our eyes do not see, and our eyes often add valuable context to the numbers and that which isn't quantifiable... yet. (Actually, my first response here is that the sample size is miniscule, but even from a three-game sample there's info to be gleaned... with the caveat that the numbers are still volatile enough that one extreme game, in possession terms, would be enough to turn anyone's numbers upside down.)

Right now, John Erskine is actually the Caps' third best Corsi player as measured by CorsiOn, trailing only Marcus Johansson and his defensive partner, John Carlson. The main reason Erskine presently boasts a 12.92 CorsiOn is that he's been on the ice with the Caps' best possession drivers (though the small sample size of course applies to them as well). Erskine has spent about 40% of his five-on-five ice time with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson - the team's three highest rated possession forwards. Not only is Erskine benefitting from a shared ice time with the top trio, but also from strong play across the blue line, where resides the team CorsiOn leader in Carlson.

But let's not sell Big John short here - his possession numbers have been good with just about everyone so far (although again, a lot of that likely owes to Carlson's strong play early).

So what contributions to these possession numbers is John Erskine making, exactly? He's been on the ice for 37 Corsi events-for (meaning any shot directed at the opposing net, regardless of whether it is saved, blocked, or goes wide) and only 25 against. Erskine has been personally responsible for only nine of those events - six shots on goal, one miss, and two blocked shots. The small number should hardly come as a surprise - as a supposed stay at-home defensemen, no one is expecting Erskine to be the heart pumping blood to the Corsi organs. But it's worth noting that Erskine has still personally contributed to the Corsi For potluck more than Marcus Johansson, Joel Ward, Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, Martin Erat, and Eric Fehr.

Of Corsi, err, of course, possession is nice but it doesn't do much to mask misplays like his on the first or second Dallas goals or the fourth Chicago tally. And the irony is that last season Erskine had poor possession numbers but was bailed out by a ridiculously high on-ice save percentage; so far this year, it's been the opposite story (and if you were to bet on where the numbers go from here, go with the possession metrics heading back towards where they were last year and the on-ice save percentage going up a bit, but not nearly as high as it was in 2013).

So in short, the answer to the question is that John Erskine is one of the team's current best Corsi players because he spends most of his ice time with the other four Corsi leaders, and it stands to reason given the abilities of those players to get pucks up ice and towards the opponent's goal that they're the ones captaining Air Force Possession, while Erskine is baggage along for the ride (which is exactly what most so-called "defensive defensemen" end up being).

Our second question (this one for Rob) is about the organization's top prospect and where he would fit in if he were he to come over. Take it away, Rob.

If and when Evgeny Kuznetsov comes across the Atlantic to join the Washington Capitals, you can be sure it will be to join the Washington Capitals, not the Hershey Bears. He's already progressed beyond the point where the AHL is going to help him, and if Tom Wilson and Connor Carrick are any indication, the Caps have no interest in taking it slowly with prospects that are NHL-ready from a talent perspective. Plus, Kuznetsov has likely picked up some bad habits in the KHL, and it's more likely he'll break those with Adam Oates than in the AHL, where he could continue to get by on talent alone (recall that Oates cited bad habits as a reason for keeping Wilson in the NHL as well). So, if Kuznetsov comes overseas, it'll be to join the Caps. That's about all I'm confident of, because after that it's a crap shoot.

The most obvious answer to "who is the odd man out" is "the guy that is injured." Kuznetsov won't be eligible to join the Caps until next Spring (after his KHL season is complete), and by that time there will almost surely be some attrition among the forward ranks. It's rare for an NHL team to be charmed with perfect health, and the Caps are already taking the ice with a couple forwards that have some injury question marks hanging over them. So, assuming injuries will answer who is the odd man out, we'll still need to figure out how Kuznetsov will be utilized.

Kuznetsov seems like a classic "top-six or bust" kind of player. He's got a ton of puck skills, and has shown an ability to put up points very quickly (and offend delicate Canadian sensibilities in the process), but he's not going to be reliable for difficult defensive minutes in the NHL at this point. He's also a lefty, so unless Oates would also like to test out Kuznetsov at center, he'll be on the left wing. Trying out a rookie as a center in the NHL during the regular season home stretch and playoffs is a bit of a risky proposition, so we'll slot him on the left wing until there's a reason to think otherwise (and there may not be). That means he'll be in competition with Johansson, Laich, Chimera, and Erat (humor us). As noted, however, he's going to have to play in the top-six to be successful, so he'll need to out-compete Johansson or Laich, or hope one of those two guys gets injured (and Erat doesn't get out of the fourth line dog house).

Putting it all together, Kuznetsov will likely end up as a left wing on one of the top two lines if he can convince Adam Oates that he can be trusted and produce in that role, or else he'll end up in the Martin Erat fourth-line left wing spot, likely getting cautious minutes in favorable circumstances. If he takes the ice at all. It seems unlikely for a prospect with the hype and pedigree of Kuznetsov, but we wouldn't be completely shocked if Oates used him as a Black Ace until Kuznetsov proves he can handle NHL competition, and produce. If he comes over, that is...

***

Agree? Disagree?

If you've got something on your mind, go ahead and ask it here on the site, on Twitter (use #JapersMailbag), via email or on Facebook, and we'll try to get to them. It's a long summer and there are a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.

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