It was a minor deal at the start of training camp for the 2006-2007 season. John Erskine, a veteran of 141 games over four seasons with the Dallas Stars and the New York Islanders, was signed as an unrestricted free agent to a contract to provide depth on defense for the Washington Capitals. Over the course of eight seasons with the Caps, Erskine would become one of only 16 defensemen in club history to appear in at least 350 regular season games with the Caps.
Little could anyone imagine that when Erskine suited up for the Caps early on in that 2006-2007 season, he could be a difference maker, but his presence in the lineup was accompanied by success that was unexpected for a team deep in the throes of a rebuild. In the first 18 games of that season in which Erskine appeared, the Caps were 9-6-3. Washington was second in the Southeast Division standings, five points behind the Atlanta Thrashers, and the club was sixth in the Eastern Conference.
In that 18th game, however, Erskine suffered a fractured foot against the Philadelphia Flyers and missed 25 games. The Caps went 8-16-1 in Erskine's absence, falling out of playoff contention. It is not to say that Erskine's absence was the only reason for the Caps' demise that season; there were many holes in the lineup, but Erskine made contributions that do not often show up directly on the scoreboard. Despite appearing in only 29 games that season, Erskine was second among defensemen in hits per game, fourth in blocked shots per game, and first in takeaways per game. He was also second on the team in fighting majors.
It was the profile of a player that was consistent over eight seasons and 350 games, a physical presence who made up for sparse offensive statistics by being a sort to keep the peace and stand up for teammates. It was among the hardest 350 games one could imagine. Not blessed with the offensive skill to make him feared in that end of the ice, the career that Erskine carved out took a toll. In his eight seasons with Washington, Erskine missed more than 240 games to illness and injury. Foot, shoulder, hand, concussion, and finally a neck injury were among those that items that ended up on Erskine's resume along with every hit, every blocked shot, and every fight.
It was the last of them, a neck injury that would require surgery to repair a disk, that cost him the entire 2014-2015 season. He did get back on the ice in March, but his contract with the Capitals expired over the summer and, having just turned 35 years of age, his future in hockey looks to be shifting from on-the-ice to behind-the-bench.
Whether Erskine resumes his career or not, his tenure with the Caps resides squarely in a fraternity of solid, workmanlike defensemen who provided a physical edge and provided close support for their teammates, defensemen such as Brendan Witt, Joe Reekie, and Mark Tinordi. It was not a style that made for headlines, but it was the sort that teams need so that they can make headlines. Caps fans wish him the best of luck wherever his road leads.