With the Washington Capitals' roller coaster of a season continuing in full swing, it was easy to miss a pair of under-the-radar transactions that took place last week.
On February 25, the Caps signed both John Erskine and Braden Holtby to two-year contract extensions (via NBCWashington.com). Holtby's extension is worth $3.7 million over the next two seasons, while Erskine's is worth $3.925 million.
Neither signing was particularly earth-shattering, nor were they the type of signings that would draw much national attention.
But for the Caps, the signings of John Erskine and Braden Holtby make sense. Let's take a closer look at both players to see why these were good moves for the Caps.
Earning His Keep
What a difference a year has made for John Erskine.
Last year, with Dale Hunter as the coach, Erskine played in only 28 games during the regular season and ultimately ended up on injured reserve.
This season, with Adam Oates as the coach, Erskine has become something of a workhorse. He is logging a career high 19:35 of ice time per game so far this season. With two goals, two assists and a plus-five rating, Erskine is not just logging a lot of ice time, he is making the most of his time on the ice.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Erskine has gone from a forgotten player to a top-four defender in Adam Oates' system.
Katie Carrera of the Washington Post wrote a very good article summarizing Erskine's rather unexpected rise after he signed his extension last week.
What is great about Erskine is his size. At 6'4" and 220 pounds, Erskine is a load to deal with and he fits in very well with the defensive system that Oates is trying to use. This style was on full display against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday. It is a style where everything is kept to the perimeter and outside. The defenders clear away the opposition from the slot area and from in front of the net.
With Erskine's size and physicality, he is a perfect fit for this system and his play, thus far, has been a reflection of that. It is odd because it is not that different from what Dale Hunter got the Caps to do in the playoffs last season, but Erskine could not quite grasp his role in Hunter's system. He is thriving in Oates' system though.
Erskine's physical presence has not been lost on his teammates. As Karl Alzner explained:
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.
Always an enforcer, Erskine is now evolving into a more balanced defender, and his progress has not been lost on his coach. In an article by Stephen Wyno of the Washington Times, Oates had this to say about the man who has turned into his most reliable blueliner:
One of the things we talked to some of the D was you’ve got a clean slate here. 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's emergence is particularly important now with Mike Green struggling with a groin injury (Washington Post). And with Erskine excelling as of late, it creates some flexibility for the Caps to make the most of their defensive matchups and pairings.
With injuries to Roman Hamrlik, Dmitry Orlov and Jack Hillen, the Caps have been rather thin as far as defensive depth. Erskine's sudden rise to prominence might just be the only thing that keeps the Caps in the conversation for a playoff berth this season.
With younger players like John Carlson benefiting from being paired up with John Erskine, locking Erskine down for two more years made a lot of sense.
Back To The Future
As up-and-down a year as it has been for John Erskine, it pales in comparison to the year that Braden Holtby has had.
Holtby went from a relatively unknown prospect for the Caps, with all of 21 games of regular-season experience to his name, to a playoff hero for the Caps.
As most will recall, Holtby came from practically out of nowhere last spring to lead the Caps to a stunning first-round upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins and Tim Thomas.
Holtby, proving his stellar performance against Boston was no fluke, then very nearly upended the top-seeded New York Rangers and Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist before falling in a great seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Along the way, Holtby posted a 1.95 goals against average.
Only Jonathan Quick, who won the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the 2012 NHL playoffs, and Lundqvist had a better goals-against average than Holtby, among goalies who played more than 10 playoff games last year.
Holtby also had a .935 save percentage.
Only Quick and Phoenix's Mike Smith had a better save percentage among goalies playing in more than 10 playoff games.
Holtby was supposed to be the future for the Caps, the man who would stabilize the Caps' issues in net for the first time since Olaf Kolzig played for Washington.
But when this season began, the Braden Holtby of the 2012 NHL playoffs was nowhere to be found. In the first five games he played this season, Holtby posted a 1-4-0 record with a 4.20 goals-against average and a .849 save percentage. Along the way, he lost his starting job to Michal Neuvirth—or so it seemed.
On Febraury 7, Holtby relieved Neuvirth after Neuvirth gave up a second goal—and we have not seen Neuvirth since then. For one reason or another, Adam Oates turned to Holtby at a critical juncture—and Holtby has delivered.
Holtby has now started nine straight games for the Caps. His record is 6-3-0 with a 2.00 goals-against-average, a .927 save percentage and three shutouts, including two of the past three games.
That's about as good a stretch as you are likely to see. And Holtby is facing a ton of shots, on average just over 30 per game during this nine-game stretch. His play has been impressive and he has looked more and more like the playoff hero from last year than the goalie who struggled so much to find his way earlier this season.
More and more, the play of Braden Holtby has to have Caps fans wondering if, in fact, the future is now and perhaps Braden Holtby is who many thought he was in the first place. And Holtby is smart enough to know that the men in front of him—like John Erskine—are a big reason for his turnaround.
Holtby talked about this in an interview with the Washington Times' Stephen Wyno:
I think my turnaround is an attribute to how well we’re playing in front of me,” Holtby said, pointing to shots that were blocked away instead of beating him because of screens. “That’s an attribute to our guys being on top of their. They’re playing outstanding, and I think we can expect nothing less than that from the rest."
The Capitals are improving and they have players like John Erskine and Braden Holtby to thank for it. Both men earned their recent contract extensions and both men will be key parts of the Caps' journey to try to get back to the playoffs.