John Erskine and the End of the Line

USA Today Sports

Weighing the defenseman's contributions and deficiencies

Grit. Toughness. Mettle. These are the kinds of qualities that are often assigned to hockey players whose on-ice contributions are perhaps less, um, measurably obvious.

Now, when you think of the Caps, grit, toughness, and mettle are likely not the words at the top of your characteristic rolodex. But for one Capital — John Erskine – it's more likely. Big John has more than 100 professional hockey fights, after all, and he's got a long standing account at the Bank of PIM, making more than 800 minutes worth of deposits over his NHL career.

But what John Erskine presently has, apart from these traits of varying tenacity, is one very ugly distinction: through Wednesday's games, only two NHL defensemen who had skated at least as much as Erskine were on the ice for a higher rate of five-on-five goals-against (and he was on for another bad one last night in 12:16 of even-strength ice time). A metric called OppGF/20 really drives home how much Erskine has struggled - Erskine's opponents, when they are not playing against him, average 0.690 goals for per twenty (5th lowest in the League - he's not exactly out there against top competition). Such a stark contrast — skaters nearly double their goal scoring rates when they go against Erskine — is indicative of serious deficiency.

And this ugly mark comes despite the fact that Erskine is on the ice for a lower percentage of defensive draws than any of his fellow Caps blueliners. And yes, Erskine is receiving worse goaltending behind him than any of his mates, but that observations comes with a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg question. Has Erskine been unlucky with the play of the tenders, or is he contributing to their failures? When Erskine is on the ice, both Philipp Grubauer and Braden Holtby see their goals-against numbers spike significantly as compared to when he is not on the ice. There's some luck and small sample size going on there... but far from the whole story. (And really, isn't any "bad luck" just last season's extreme good fortune evening out?)

But defensemen come in tandems, right? And can Erskine be held solely accountable for defensive breakdowns, when his partner, Steve Oleksy, is generally on the ice right there with him? Well, by taking a peek at how Oleksy performs with Erskine as compared to without him, you'll notice that when Oleksy gets on the ice without Erskine, his GA/20 makes the dramatic fall from 0.908 to 0.426. His possession numbers and goals-for percentage also improve, helping to draw the conclusion that Erskine is the real burden on that pairing.

Despite Erskine's struggles at even strength, he's been given penalty killing duties as well (in part, no doubt, out of necessity). Those haven't gone over so well either, as the penalty has only gotten worse, and again no defenseman (besides Tyson Strachan, who skated 8:25 of PK time) has a worse TOI to GA ratio on the team.

Meanwhile, Nate Schmidt, who has better offensive numbers, defensive numbers, and possession numbers, and is a natural replacement for Erskine on account of his left-handedness, no longer gets to show up at NHL barns. So what gives? It's evident that Erskine is no longer an effective NHL blueliner, while Schmidt exhibited promise and competency in his debut 28-game stint in the bigs. If the organization is interested in improving on-ice product (and isn't that the inherent ethos of the organization?), the blueline needs to be tweaked, and it might not be a bad idea to start with the guy posting NHL-worst numbers, whether it's with Schmidt or someone else.

All of this isn't to pile on a veteran rearguard who should be recognized and respected for what he has done for this team, most notably in the admirable, selfless and presumably painful defense of his teammates. But it's clear that the end of the line in terms of being a net positive for the team is near for Big John, if it hasn't been crossed already. Marginal improvements are still improvements, and the Capitals should look to make one in their third defensive pair; John Erskine is no longer serviceable there.

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