In 2006, then-Capitals General Manager George McPhee signed a defenseman by the name of John Erskine as a free agent. A former second-round pick by the Dallas Stars in 1998 (39th overall), Erskine was unknown to most Caps fans. He played 29-games in 2006-07 with the Caps, recording one goal and six assists, before spending four games with the Hershey Bears; recording two assists.
In 2007-08, Erskine saw a bigger role with the Capitals, as his former coach in Hershey, Bruce Boudreau, had just been promoted to interim head coach. He played 51-games, recording two goals and seven assists while playing on a third-pairing. His presence on the team was certainly felt, as his willingness to deliver big hits and stand up for teammates made him an instant fan favorite. Erskine’s physical, no-nonsense play was a welcome addition in the Caps’ lineup.
With the support of Boudreau, Erskine played 52-games in the ’08-09 campaign; putting up four assists. He continued to play an enforcer role for the team (he recorded 63 penalty minutes) while still being a reliable defender for the coaching staff to dress on most nights.
In the Capitals’ President’s Trophy-winning 2009-10 season, Erskine saw 50-games of action, posting one goal and five assists, while compiling 66 penalty minutes (PIM). Despite the emergence of fellow left-handed d-man Karl Alzner as an effective player, Erskine’s place on the roster was never in doubt. The following season, “Big John” played a career-high 73-games; recording career-highs in goals and points with four and eleven, respectively. His role as the team’s tough guy was on display for the entirety of North America to see, as on January 1, 2011, Erskine engaged in fisticuffs with then-Pittsburgh Penguins forward Mike Rupp at the 2011 Winter Classic; as the event was streamed on NBC. For the record, Erskine won the fight!
The next year brought changes to Washington, as in late-November 2011, Boudreau was fired after a slow start to the season. He was replaced by Capitals’ great, Dale Hunter; a defensive-minded coach in his own right. Erskine’s playing time decreased, as he was a healthy scratch on several occasions; playing a total of just 28-games. For Erskine, Hunter’s presence meant limited action.
The following summer brought another head coach to town, this time in the form of Hunter’s former teammate, and Capitals’ great Adam Oates. While offensive-minded as a player, Oates wanted to implement a better all-around system that combined defensive responsibility in the Caps own zone and a high-speed offense. Erskine’s game action was again limited, as he played just two more games than the previous season. Despite this, he posted three goals and three assists, to go along with 34 penalty minutes. His commitment and efforts were rewarded with a two-year contract extension from Caps’ brass.
In 2013-14, even after a full year of Oates’ system, the Capitals struggled mightily during the season and missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years. “Big John” played just seven more games; putting up a goal and three assists. His most memorable moment from that season was a classic Erskine fight: the Capitals were hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs and then-rookie Tom Wilson had just been involved in a bout with defenseman Korbinian Holzer. Erskine, a seasoned veteran in the art of fisticuffs, then proceeded to drop the gloves with Toronto’s enforcer Colton Orr. The then-Toronto forward had little chance against Erskine; who delivered the finishing blow with a fist to the forehead of Orr. Wilson, having clearly enjoyed watching the bout, grinned with delight as he looked at the Verizon Center jumbotron.
That season, however, proved to be “Big John’s” last in the lineup; as he was forced to miss the 2014-15 season after recovering from both knee surgery during the summer, and a removed herniated disk in his neck. Erskine was able to skate, but he was not able to suit up for new coach Barry Trotz. Erskine attended practice after practice, watching his teammates prepare for games he desperately wanted to play in. At 35, Erskine’s playing days could very well be over. Although a report from CSN’s Chuck Gormley stated that retirement was preliminary, Erskine’s age and health may keep other teams away.
With the recent birth of his new son, Erskine’s playing career has been put on hold. But if/when he decides to return, given the aforementioned factors, Erskine may very well be done. But whatever happens, Erskine has given the Capitals nine unforgettable years of service. His physical presence was valuable to the team, particularly when they played rivals such as Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. Erskine could drop the gloves on a dime and usually won most of his fights. His fight with Orr will always stick out in my mind because it showed the value “Big John” brought night-in, night-out. It also proved he was still capable of getting his point across with his fists.
The Capitals career of Erskine was a nine-year stay that saw numerous fights, big hits, and a few black eyes. Capitals’ Nation will certainly miss John Erskine.