The Washington Times - February 25, 2013, 11:14AM

It was hard to imagine John Erskine getting a two-year contract extension with the Washington Capitals, even for the big defenseman when he was out of the lineup for the final 27 games last season.

Not here,” Erskine said, flashing his gap-toothed smile. “I was thinking maybe another team, but things have worked out this season and I’m glad to be here for a couple more years.”

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Erskine had a reason to smile: a two-year deal worth $3.925 million. The 33-year-old will make $1.925 million next season and $2 million in 2014-15, a raise from the $1.5 million he got in his previous contract.

And while the rugged, defensive defenseman might not have seen this coming a year ago when he was relegated to the press box, Erskine’s play this season helped seal a new contract. Given consistent top-four minutes, Erskine has been the kind of pile-moving force in front of the net the Caps have needed.

“When we can have him in there, it just changes kind of the whole dynamic,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “It sometimes makes you think twice to go in front of the net and doing something on the ice that you might not normally do. He’s our guy for that.”

Erskine has a goal and an assist in 11 games, and the 33-year-old has found his groove alongside the offensive-minded John Carlson.

“He’s one of those players that he brings some toughness to our team, he brings a lot of grit to our team,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “He’s a good defenseman back there, he’s calm with the puck, makes good plays. You don’t see a lot of physical, tough D-men being able to do that. Having him back there, guys are confident with him there, and it’s nice to have that ability of toughness and grit on the ice on a regular shift.”

Erskine’s deal is a lesson to teammates about toughness of the ice, too. He played just seven of 38 games from January on last year before being placed on injured reserve.

“I think even when he wasn’t playing last year that he’s a fun guy to be around regardless of the situation, and he had that positive outlook on things and good things happen when you work hard,” Carlson said. “It’s great for him.”

General manager George McPhee said getting Erskine locked up was something the Caps started thinking about over the summer, before this revitalization under rookie coach Adam Oates.

“He’s played very well, and he’s played well for us over the years,” McPhee said. “I thought he should’ve played more for us last year. Unfortunately he didn’t. But he brings something that we like a lot. He’s a good player who plays tough and keeps people honest.”

Erskine had quite a forgettable experience under Dale Hunter. But this is a new year.

“Last year I put behind me,” Erskine said. “It wasn’t my favorite hockey year, but things got off to a better start for me this year for me. The coaches have been giving me minutes, and I’m playing with confidence. A lot of good things are happening.”