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John Erskine packing more than just a punch this season

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2013

PHILADELPHIA — John Erskine has the hockey player smile: missing teeth behind a grizzled beard. On the ice, the big defenseman's game is no-nonsense.

It's the style of play the Washington Capitals need, and it's why they rewarded Erskine with a two-year, $3.93 million contract extension this week.

"I think he brings a lot to this team that no one else can quite bring," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "When we can have him in there, it just changes kind of the whole dynamic. 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, who played his 296th Caps game Wednesday at the Philadelphia Flyers, is the fourth-longest-tenured player on the team, behind only Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich and Mike Green.

"He's a Washington Capital. He's been here seven years and he'll be here a couple more years at least," general manager George McPhee said. "He's really improved as a player. He plays a lot now. He's a good penalty killer. He brings some size and some reach and some grit that we like."

The Caps extending Erskine like this came as something of a surprise after the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder was rarely used last season under coach Dale Hunter. It looked like this would be his final year in Washington.

But coach Adam Oates came in with a clear message to Erskine and the other defensemen.

"One of the things we talked to some of the D was you've got a clean slate here," Oates said. "I know that he didn't always play, and I like the physical presence he brings. He's playing a lot of minutes and he's handling it very well and doing a great job."

Erskine has consistently played in a top-four role this season, making the most out of his clean slate. Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes, he played his usual physical game, blocked a slap shot, drew a penalty and chipped in a goal. The 32-year-old joked, "Maybe I should've waited" before signing the new contract.

"We know he can punch a guy," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "He can shoot it, too."

Erskine is more known for enforcing than scoring, but he put together a complete game that showed off the kind of complete season he is enjoying this year.

"He's been playing outstanding for us. He's the grit that we need back there," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "It's good to see him get rewarded with a goal. Obviously, that's not the focal point of his game, but he's been playing outstanding."

Oates and assistant coach Calle Johansson have told all of the team's defensemen not to be afraid to jump up into plays and contribute on offense. That's not Erskine's forte, judging by his 47 points in 436 career games entering Wednesday.

But Erskine has shown a willingness to do more than just his job of clearing opponents out from the front of the net, validating Oates' confidence.

"I love the ice time," Erskine said. "It's finding the system. Oatesie lets us jump up in the play more because we're safe about it, and it gives us more offensive chances."

Of course the Caps don't count on Erskine for his offense. He's there for muscle in the defensive end, where he uses his size and toughness, most of the time without crossing the line.

"You need to play physical; you need those bodies," Oates said. "He's playing a lot of minutes and handling it really well."

Erskine handled last year's time out of the lineup about as well as could be expected. He wasn't happy about it, but his earning a contract extension is a lesson to teammates about not getting discouraged.

"I think even when he wasn't playing last year that he's a fun guy to be around regardless of the situation," defenseman John Carlson said. "He had that positive outlook on things, and good things happen when you work hard."

Missing all but 28 games in 2011-12 with injuries and time as a healthy scratch looked like it was going to derail Erskine's career. Instead, it was just a detour, given his revitalization under Oates.

"John is that [guy] — he just keeps his nose to the grindstone. He just keeps working and doing what the coaches want him to do," forward Matt Hendricks said.

"It's been paying off for him this season, and there's nobody happier in here than his teammates because we really appreciate when he's playing for us. That's what I'm getting at when I say that he's such a great professional, that when he shows up at the rink, he's ready to work, and that's all you can ask."

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