Last week, when it was suggested to Adam Oates that defenseman John Erskine might be pushed in training camp by young blue liners Dmitry Orlov and Tomas Kundratek, the Capitals’ second-year coach stood by Erskine.
“Sometimes,” he said, “it can be easy from the cheap seats. To me, Ersk is a very valuable member of our team.”
On Monday night, after watching Erskine battle the Flyers in a chippy 4-3 preseason shootout victory, Oates was asked if Erskne’s role as the Caps’ fourth defenseman is his to lose.
“He’s not losing his job,” Oates said. “He’s not. It’s not even up for grabs. He’s top four on our team.”
At 33, Erskine is beginning his 12th season in the NHL and seventh with the Capitals. Last season Erskine played a gritty 30 games for the Caps and was rewarded with a two-year, $3.95 million contract extension through next season.
It was a breakthrough season for Erskine, who spent much of the 2011-12 season as the odd-man out in Dale Hunter’s defensive rotation, replaced by Orlov.
Erskine struggled against the Rangers in the playoffs last season, finishing with a minus-4 in seven games, and underwent left knee surgery in the offseason.
“I couldn’t even get in the weight room to strengthen it,” Erskine said. “I’ve got to work on my game shape. I wasn’t able to train the way I wanted to and this is my time to get back into game shape.”
Erskine logged 18:09 in ice time Monday night, delivered two hits, blocked four shots and took six minutes in penalties, including a double roughing minor for punching Matt Mangene when he was on his knees.
“I lost my temper a little bit,” Erskine said. “You don’t want to take crap from anybody. That’s just hockey.”
Oates said it’s not easy being a veteran tough guy in the NHL, especially during the preseason, when young rookies are trying to make their marks.
“Sometimes it’s tough for those guys because there are young guys on the other team who want to see how tough you are,” Oates said. “You might think that because you’re a proven vet you don’t need to do that. You do.”
It’s the reason, Troy Brouwer said, that Erskine is held in such high regard in the Capitls’ dressing room, a fact that is not lost on Oates.
“He plays one of the toughest roles,” Brouwer said. “ He walks that fine line between being an enforcer and being a good, solid defenseman. He was steady for us last season and you have to have that element of – I won’t say intimidation -- but that presence on the ice.”