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John Erskine, Revisited

[Ed. Note: I'm thrilled to introduce DMG as a new contributor to The Rink (then again, he's really been contributing here for a long time already). You know him from his own site, Caps Blue Line, and of course from the comments here, so enjoy his first post and be sure to welcome him formally aboard.]

It would be fair to say that since I started writing about the Capitals I’ve not exactly been a friend to John Erskine. Last February I called Erskine "a liability against most NHL caliber forwards". During the team's playoff series against Philadelphia I wrote that taking Erskine out of the lineup was "the most obvious" step the team needed to take in order to win the series. Over the summer I wrote that having Erskine under contract at all was a mistake that was hurting the Capitals when it came to getting under the salary cap.

Recently (that is to say, since Erskine's January 13th return to the' lineup) I've found myself becoming more and more of a fan of Erskine. At first glance, there’s no obvious reason why, as Erskine’s basic statistics aren’t any better this year than they were last year:

2007-08 51 2 7 9 1 96 0 0 1 0 48 .042
2008-09 24 0 2 2 5 31 0 0 0 0 23 0.0

Of course, no one would try and argue that John Erskine is anything other than a defensive defenseman, and thus many of his contributions to the team are unlikely to show up in a basic stats line. With that in mind, I did a little number crunching in an effort to better quantify Erskine’s contributions and compare him with his teammates.

Here’s how Erskine stacks up so far this year, with "Rank/7" being Erskine’s rank among the team’s top seven defensemen (Erskine plus Mike Green, Tom Poti, Milan Jurcina, Karl Alzner, Shaone Morrisonn, and Jeff Schultz) and "Rank/9" being his rank among the nine defensemen who have played fifteen or more games for the team (the aforementioned seven plus Tyler Sloan and Sean Collins). All statistics other than plus/minus are given as frequencies as to how often a play occurs. Ergo a low number is good for hits, but bad for giveaways.

2008-09 Erskine Rank/7 Rank/9
Plus/Minus 5 4th 4th
Hit Frequency 6:39 1st 1st
Blocked Shot Frequency 12:53 3rd 4th
Giveaway Frequency 41:12 2nd 2nd
Takeaway Frequency 412:00 7th 9th

The number that most obviously jumps out is takeaway frequency: in his 412 minutes of play this season, Erskine has registered just one official takeaway. However, if you look at Erskine’s numbers as compared with the six Capitals blueliners who were regulars both last season and this season and aggregate the numbers across the two campaigns, Erskine fares much better:

2007-08 through 08-09 Erskine Rank/6
Plus/Minus 6 4th
Hit Frequency 7:24 1st
Blocked Shot Frequency 13:11 2nd
Giveaway Frequency 26:57 4th
Takeaway Frequency 57:46 4th

The numbers don’t paint an overly flattering picture but they do seem to suggest that Erskine is a quality NHL defenseman; one who will make a hit, block shots, and generally keep the team out of trouble, an assessment that is much more flattering than one I would have given at the season’s outset.

But of course, it’s impossible to discuss Erskine’s role on the Capitals without discussing his new contract, a two year, $2.5 million dollar extension that kicks in next season. Sure, he might be a decent enough NHL defenseman, but is he worth the money and, perhaps more importantly, the cap hit?

Not too long ago I would have said no, but the going rate for stay-at-home defensemen is higher than you might think. There are a fair number of players who are statistically similar to Erskine making comparable salaries including Ossi Vaananen ($1 million), Ken Klee ($1.25 million), Denis Gauthier ($2.1 million), and Jim Vandermeer ($2.6 million). Naturally some of the players with similar statistics are better than Erskine. However, Erskine has one advantage over a number of comparable players as well: he can fight.

Erskine will never be the top tier heavyweight Donald Brashear is, but he is good enough to make most opposing players think twice before taking any liberties and to make forwards just a little more reluctant to go the net when he’s on the ice. But what is a fight worth? A recent paper suggests the going rate is about $11,000 for any fight and more than $18,000 for winning, the aggregation of which can be see in the salaries of players like Brashear ($1.2 million), Georges Laraque ($1.5 million), Todd Fedoruk ($1.05 million), Derek Boogaard ($950,000), and Eric Godard ($750,000). All are decent enough forwards but all also make substantially more money because of their pugilistic skills. Having one player who can play and who can fight is a better option than having to use an additional roster space and contract for a player who’s useless when his gloves are on. It would be difficult to put a number on Erskine’s additional value to the Capitals because of his fighting ability but I’d be comfortable calling it at least $250,000.

Perhaps the most important consideration in evaluating both Erskine’s performance and contract is to think of the alternatives. Being able to take a regular shift in the NHL without putting your team in frequent peril is a skill that is much rarer than it might seem, something Capitals fans who have watched Bryan Helmer, Sean Collins, and Tyler Sloan this season should know. NHL teams are aware of it as well – more than a half dozen "depth defensemen" are moved every year at the trading deadline, as playoff contenders look to shore up their defensive ranks.

More than double the league’s minimum salary might seem like a lot for a player whose general job is essentially to eat up ice time without making any major mistakes until the more skilled players recover enough to get back on the ice. But the reality is that there simply aren’t very many people capable of doing that the NHL. John Erskine is one of the people who is, even in spite of his mediocre skating ability and tendency to take too many penalties. On that basis alone, a pretty strong argument can be made that he’s worth his new contract.