Welcome back to "Capital Letters," a sporadic feature where I answer any and all questions relating to the local professional hockey team/validate my existence.
I'm going to rock this mailbag as well as Troy Brouwer rocks a flannel adult onesie, which is to say really well.
John Erskine -- you know, rugged defenseman, plays a mean Fisher-Price xylophone -- is nearing a return from a month-plus stint on injured reserve as he continues to work his way back into shape following offseason knee surgery. Erskine has not played since Oct. 26, but based on what Adam Oates said after practice on Thursday, his return is imminent, possibly as soon as this weekend.
“He looks like he’s moving better to me," Oates said. "He looks more like last year to me, hopefully that continues to grow and he gets stronger. Good for him and good for us. He’s got to be able to skate, you can’t hide, you can’t not gap up you’ve got to be able to play 200 feet.”
So where does that leave the rest of the defense? Since Erskine exited, Nate Schmidt, Dmitry Orlov and Alexander Urbom have all taken turns replacing him on the left side with varying results. Schmidt has been the only one with long-term sticking power and has handled the responsibility thrust upon him admirably. Orlov has been silently solid since finally cracking the lineup nearly two weeks ago, while Urbom has fallen off considerably and has been relegated to press box duty, which means having the distinct displeasure of sitting in my general vicinity as I concoct terrible puns.
Erskine will not (or should not) be thrust into top-four duty if and when he returns, and I believe Schmidt has earned the right to remain in the lineup. That really leaves Orlov, who I believe will be the casualty. (I believe Urbom's Capitals career may come to an abrupt end sooner rather than later, perhaps by being placed on waivers.)
Now, that does not necessarily mean that Orlov has to leave Washington -- he cannot bolt to Russia for the time being now that he has reached 30 days of NHL service, so in your face, jerks -- but a move has to be made for Erskine to be activated.
Consider forward Brooks Laich, who unlike Erskine, does not appear ready to return in the immediate future as he cannot seem to keep his groin in line. (Yeah, I know what I said.) By placing Laich on long-term injured reserve, Washington would free up enough salary cap space to keep both Erskine and Orlov.
Then you would have to figure out which of those two plays a more integral role on the team. Based on what we know about Oates' line of thinking, that would be Erskine despite the fan base's wishes.
Remember when Martin Erat made his trade demand public a few weeks ago? Yeah, he's still here. It has certainly made for an awkward situation, though you would not know it based on the interaction between him and his teammates in the locker room. Erat has recently been serving as the third-line center between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, but push will eventually have to come to shove.
I believe that Joey is asking if Erat will be traded before the deadline on March 5, which I certainly believe (and hope) would be the case. Also, keep in mind that the NHL will undergo a roster freeze from midnight on Dec. 19 until midnight on Dec. 27, meaning that trades, waivers and loans cannot be made. If Erat is still a Capital by next Thursday, then that means that he will be one over one month after requesting that he not be one anymore. It all seems a little odd.
Of course, to be traded, there must be another team interested. The Vancouver Canucks have been connected to Erat from the beginning, and forward David Booth's name has been thrown around a lot. Because trading a disgruntled veteran with a $4.5 million salary cap hit for a disgruntled veteran with a $4.25 million salary cap hit who tweets pictures of his hunting exploits is appealing. Got it.
Let's be real: Erat is not going to fetch a return anywhere near the one that the Nashville Predators received last spring (a top prospect like Filip Forsberg). Getting rid of him will be more about clearing out the space and, well, getting rid of him than acquiring a valuable asset. In my opinion, the only way to acquire that valuable asset is to package Erat. Orlov, who told my colleague Chuck Gormley that he has no reservations about staying in Washington as long as he is playing, is an enticing option, as is goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who could strengthen a struggling team's depth at the position.
Speaking of Neuvirth...
That is an interesting question, Andrew. Since Neuvirth injured himself stepping on a puck as he made his way onto the ice for warmups against the Montreal Canadiens on Nov. 29, Philipp Grubauer has been sensational in over 132 minutes of action (one start and two relief appearances), posting a 1.36 GAA and .959 SV%.
His teammates have professed that they felt instantly confident in the 22-year-old despite having little experience playing in front of him (though a lot of Grubauer's success, particularly in his first career victory on Sunday against the New York Rangers, came from the Capitals playing strong in front of him), which is a testament to his ability.
Grubauer's biggest concern about his own play is where he places rebounds. He thought he did a mediocre job of that on Sunday and even worse on Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but like all of the organization's goaltenders, he is undergoing stylistic changes implemented by goaltending coach Olie Kolzig. Grubauer told me this week that it has been an adjustment and that he is still thinking more than reacting, but that transition takes time.
Grubauer has plenty of upside and will make an impact in Washington sooner rather than later, but I do not believe that the Capitals are ready to move on from Neuvirth just yet.
The term I like to use to describe Neuvirth is "victim of circumstance." It always seems that something happens to him at the most inopportune time and allows other goaltenders, whether they be Tomas Vokoun, Braden Holtby or Grubauer, to overshadow him. Holtby has cemented himself in Oates' eyes as "The Man," and I am not sure if Neuvirth, who has proven capable of carrying the load, will get that opportunity here again as long as Holtby is healthy.
You can justify sitting a rookie like Grubauer for longer periods of time than an established player like Neuvirth, but I believe that Grubauer will benefit from a little more seasoning at the AHL level before advancing to the NHL full-time.
So to answer the question, do I see Grubauer replacing Neuvirth? Yes, but not now.
I am no expert on advanced metrics (though the Capitals community is full of them, from Neil Greenberg to the entire crew at Japers' Rink and Russian Machine's Peter Hassett, all of whom you should seek out if you have not already), but the Capitals are one of the NHL's worst possession teams. They, however, are winning, so some deficiencies can be masked.
What are they doing about it? I am not really sure (though I plan on finding out, so stay tuned), but what I do know is that Oates and his staff keep track of a lot of the same things we do: zone entries, shot attempts and the like.
"I would say we track zone time, pro and con, and how many times we let them into the zone," Oates said last week. "Some nights, a team, depending on the style they play, come into our zone 70 times, and then all of a sudden, you have a night where it's 90, what did we do wrong when it's 90? The weekend we played Toronto [on Nov. 23], the night before, we were 70 times going in [the Montreal Canadiens'] end. Toronto, we were 100 times, so what did we do right that night? We try and track tendencies based on that."
Washington is trending in the right direction; prior to the 6-5 shootout victory against the Lightning, which was one crazy freakin' game, the Capitals outpossessed their opponents at even strength for four straight games, the first time they had ever done that under Oates.
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