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Japers' Rink Mailbag: John Erskine's Future, Kids' Ice Time (and Buckets), The Core, Pizza and More

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The future of a long-time Cap, ice time for two still-new Caps, the Ice Bucket Challenge, the Caps' core, PIZZA (!) and more in this week's edition of "you ask, we answer."

Alex Trautwig

Big 'bag this week, so let's dive right in with a question for Peerless:

John Erskine is a guy who has been a good soldier for the franchise and never seemed to give less than the best effort he had, even when it meant dropping the gloves against heavyweights, a courageous move given his concussion history (by HockeyFights' count, Big John has fought 29 times in a Caps sweater). That said, the Capitals are now in a position in which they have not found themselves in years, perhaps decades - they have the potential to put three defensive pairs on the ice that have no obvious holes that can be unduly exploited (at least to the degree we have seen in recent years, including when Erskine was on the ice).

It means that on paper, John Erskine is now no better than the seventh defenseman and might well be eighth behind Jack Hillen... or lower. His cap hit of $1,962,500 would seem to be a bit much for a team on which he'd likely make only infrequent appearances, but that doesn't mean that Erskine is all but out the door, either. Given that Hillen has appeared in only 36 of 164 regular season games as a Capital due to injuries, Erskine might serve as an insurance policy against another injury (to Hillen or another defenseman), albeit one with a high premium.

Are there cheaper (and arguably better) alternatives for that "insurance policy" as the 7/8 defenseman? Sure. Connor Carrick ($636,667 cap hit), Nate Schmidt ($625,000), Steve Oleksy ($541,667), and Patrick Wey ($640,000) would fill the bill, although only Schmidt among that group is a left-handed shot (as is Erskine), to the extent that still matters, and Carrick, Schmidt and Wey would likely be better served in their development with a full season in Hershey, if the alternative is watching games from the press box in D.C.

If the Capitals are inclined to go cheaper and try to move Erskine, it would seem unlikely he would bring back much (read: anything) in return. His contract is a bit steep for a third pair/reserve defenseman, he has an injury history, and he is 34 years old. As part of a larger deal, to add some ballast from the Caps' side, his profile might be a bit more attractive to someone, but even there it would not likely be part of an earth-moving trade.

There is a wild card here, though, in Cameron Schilling. You will remember that Schilling was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Caps in March 2012 after getting some attention from a number of teams based on his play with the Miami University RedHawks. To date he has had only two games of NHL experience, but he has had decent numbers in Hershey with the Bears (140 games over the past two seasons, 10-22-32, plus-19).

What makes Schilling (who is actually still an unsigned restricted free agent, but let's pretend that he comes to his senses soon and signs) a wild card here is that he not waiver-exempt. His history as a sought-after free agent raises the distinct possibility that by exposing him to waivers in trying to move him through the system the team risks him being claimed, and the club might be hesitant to tolerate that sort of risk given the effort to obtain him in the first place. If Schilling fulfills the expectations the club had when they signed him, it is possible he could play his way onto the club in training camp (although this might have been more likely had the Caps not also signed two high-priced free agent defensemen last month). Even if he doesn't earn that spot quite yet, though, his upside might make him worth keeping around, which puts in motion a different set of possibilities that would make retaining Erskine less likely (i.e. waivers).

In the end, Erskine has one year left on his current deal, but it is likely to be a tough contract to move. However, there are possibilities surrounding him on the roster. It might not look like going out on a limb, but as to the odds of John Erskine playing out that last year of his contract with the Caps, it's a coin flip.

[We'll give this one to Adam.] More is a pretty relative term, but I am assuming that we are talking about more ice time than they saw under Adam Oates (which was 13:28 per night for Evgeny Kuznetsov and just 7:56 per outing for Tom Wilson). To try and see how Barry Trotz has handled young forwards in the past, we'll turn to Hockey-Reference for a list of Preds second-year forwards under the age of 23, sorted by time on ice. Here's how they shook out:

Player Age TOI/GP
Scott Hartnell 19 17.0
Alexander Radulov 21 16.4
Gabriel Bourque 22 15.8
Denis Arkhipov 22 15.7
David Legwand 19 14.7
Adam Hall 22 14.1
Nick Spaling 22 13.9
Colin Wilson 21 13.3
Marian Cisar 22 13.2
Martin Erat 21 12.8
Filip Forsberg 19 11.4
Jordin Tootoo 22 9.3

Obviously that list lacks the context of the rest of the rosters surrounding those players, but  given that a spot on the second line (be it in the middle or on the left wing) seems to be Kuznetsov's to lose, along with the power-play time that tends to accompany a player with his skill-set, Kuznetsov is likely to see a minimum of 15 minutes a night (and more if he can handle it).

Tom Wilson is a bigger question mark. Trotz is very excited to coach Wilson (in fact, the new Caps coach used that word twice in one paragraph when talking about the 2012 first-rounder) and openly believes "he's a guy that's going to move up really quickly." But the Caps haven't yet opened up a space to move Wilson up the depth chart on the right side, and he would likely be better served playing big minutes in Hershey than spending another season on the fourth line in D.C. Both Trotz and Brian MacLellan appear to believe that players need ice time to develop, so Wilson will definitely see more ice time this season than he did last... it just might not be in Washington.

No, not really. The Caps retained assistant coach Blaine Forsythe (the architect of the power-play over the past two seasons), an indication that they're aware that their power-play was really damn good under Adam Oates. Maybe Trotz is a little wary of the risk inherent in the 1-3-1 set-up - the Caps did give up a lot of shorthanded goals last year. But you've gotta crack some eggs to make a cake, and hopefully the new coaching staff isn't so risk-averse as to try to fix what ain't broken.

Is that a Shark Week joke? No?

The NHL has embraced the Ice Bucket Challenge, an effort to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS and even better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, and that's great. Regardless of the performances involved, here's the bottom line - and it's the actual bottom line: "During the period from July 29-Aug. 10 in 2013, the ALS Association raised $22,000 in donations. During the same period this year, it has raised $1.35 million" (and more recent numbers are even more impressive). Call the movement what you will, but I call it pretty awesome.

To answer this question, we need some ground rules. What is a "core"? How many players can be considered "core" players? To answer those questions, we turn to science.

Per the U.S. Geological Survey, the core makes up about 15% of the Earth's total volume. That includes both the inner and outer core, but we're going to consider them together (the Earth's inner core is about 1% of  the planet's total volume, so the inner core is... I don't know, maybe Alex Ovechkin's heart). So if we take a 23-man NHL roster and limit our core to 15%, we're talking about 3.45 guys. We'll round that up to four.

To me, the "core four" for the Caps is Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Braden Holtby. It's tempting to put Mike Green in that group, but given that the team hasn't made a long-term commitment to him (or vice versa), his future here seems to be a bit in flux. So he's in the mantle, to stick with our geological guidelines (which is fitting, because that's where tectonic plates and whatnot are). As for Carlson, he's pretty much established himself as the blueliner in which the team has the most confidence, and, somewhat similarly, the vote of confidence the new administration has given Holtby demonstrates their support for him and his emerging leadership role. That's my core.

As to whom I'd build around, it's pretty much those players (with a big caveat on Holtby if he gets pricey - see last week's Mailbag), Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen (because they've already made that commitment), and likely some of the next wave of younger guys. And yes, Mike Green, too.

They probably have enough cap space to do it, but I'd be leaning against signing Paul Bissonnette. On the one hand, having a real heavyweight available would theoretically allow Wilson to fight less (which would be a good thing), but on the other hand, I'd prefer to see a more useful player fill that fourth-line left wing spot (a strong penalty-killer, perhaps). I enjoy watching the ever-entertaining Bissonnette from afar, but wonder if he wouldn't be a bit of a distraction here and not exactly the type of guy Trotz and MacLellan are looking for as they try to establish a new culture on the team. Pass.

Ah, the hot take. So many good candidates, what with Ovechkin and Green on the team. But this being Washington (where the best quarterback in the League has for decades been whomever is backing up the local football team's starter), I'll go with the almost inevitable "goalie controversy" column when Holtby has a bad game or three and Justin Peters plays well in a couple of spot starts. El concepto caliente!

Okay, so this question is kind of bullshit. (I'm sorry... I know I don't curse much on the blog, but I'm a little worked up.) There's really no best pizza topping because no one gets just one topping on a pizza, and a lot of great toppings need a complementary topping partner. Forced to go with just one "best pizza topping," I'd go with some sort of spicy formerly oinking product, be it pepperoni, hot Italian sausage or salami picante. Meaty, salty and hot, with a bit of fatty goodness (wait, did I just describe myself?), that's the way to go.

Bonus! This question made me think of a question from David Rees's recent AMA: "What is your favorite nontraditional pizza topping?" His answer? Mayonnaise. That sounded (sounds?) disgusting at first, but then I thought about it... and acted upon it. I made a pretty traditional pie, but mixed some cheddar into the cheese mix, and topped it with red onion and some nice, thin-sliced roast beef. To finish it once it came out of the oven? No, not mayonnaise... but close. Boar's Head Horseradish Sauce. It was very great. I should've saved you a piece.

In conclusion, spicy meat, hold the mayo.

***

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. As always, there are always a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.