Sunday, June 07, 2009

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: Karl Alzner

Karl Alzner

Theme: “You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.”

So it was that Crash Davis counseled Ebby Calvin LaLoosh before “Nuke” headed off to the show in “Bull Durham.” And so, Karl Alzner got his taste of the show this year, playing 30 games with the Caps when injuries decimated the blue line corps early in the season.

To say it was “up and down” would be a bit of an understatement. Even though the ten-game segments are few, they do reveal a couple of things...

First, Alzner started well – perhaps the adrenaline of getting called up – then faded late in his call-up. He had only one point (an assist) after his 11th game, and he did not register a “plus” game in his last 13, going minus-8 in the process.

Perhaps coincidentally, Alzner’s better “first half” of his call up seemed to coincide with a more physical edge (he had 20 hits in his third and fourth groups of ten, only five in his fifth and sixth). Alzner is not generally described as a physical defenseman, but he does have some size (and could grow a bit more). It might not be the strength of his game – angles and position are – but using that size from time to time could be to his advantage.

At the start of the season, we had this to say about Alzner and other prospect defensemen of recent vintage…

“Since 2000, 16 defensemen have been selected in the top ten overall picks in the entry draft. Two of them – Rostislav Klesla and Jay Bouwmeester – saw action in their first year with their club after being drafted. Another eight saw NHL action in their second year. But here is the thing; through that second year, only Bouwmeester, Joni Pitkanen, Mike Komisarek, and Erik Johnson saw more than 10 regular games in a season with their respective clubs. It doesn’t seem to argue for a long stint with the Caps this year for Alzner, despite his pedigree.”

That Alzner got 30 games with the big club in his first professional season was a product of necessity – injuries. But it says something about his skill and potential that he was able to give as good an account of himself as he did.

What Alzner had, though, was some rather odd splits…

- Alzner might have wished he played in the Northeast Division, or at least played against those teams all the time. He was 1-1-2, plus-7 against the Northeast in 11 games, 0-3-3, minus-8 against everyone else in 19 games.

- As might be expected of a rookie, he had his troubles on the road. While he was 0-1-1, plus-5 in 16 games at Verizon Center, he was 1-3-4, minus-6 on the road.

- He had a brutal time of it against the Rangers; a pair of minus-3 games on his way to 0-1-1, minus-7 in three games against the Blueshirts. We’ll consider ourselves lucky he didn’t dress for the opening round of the playoffs.

Digging a little deeper in comparing him with his defenseman teammates, we find that Alzner held up pretty well in 5-on-5 play. His Corsi rating was second on the team (defensemen, minimum of 30 games played) to Mike Green. Only Tom Poti played against better quality of competition, while Alzner suffered with the worst quality of teammates in posting his numbers. While he did have the second worst goals scored against onice per 60 minutes, his differential of goals for/goals against (0.00) was comparable to Tom Poti (0.00), Shaone Morrison (0.05), and Milan Jurcina (0.10). He was the only defenseman playing at least 30 games who drew more penalties than he took and had, by far, the best penalties taken per 60 minutes number (he took one minor in 30 games).

Alzner is most certainly a work in progress. Even if he makes the Caps opening night roster out of camp next year, he’s probably a couple of years away from being a 24-26 minute a night defenseman who will play in the big shutdown situations. But considering that this is his first year of professional hockey, his production was a pleasant surprise… as long as one keeps in mind that there is a lot of upside yet to fulfill.

We’ll return to the great philosopher, Crash Davis, who once described baseball to Ebby Calvin LaLoosh in these terms – “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains." Alzner plays such a simple game, himself, to his credit. It will do him well to remember that as he moves forward.

Grade B+

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