Theme: “It's all in how you arrange the thing... the careful balance of the design is the motion.”
-- Andrew Wyeth
If you Googled “Karl Alzner” today and checked on news for the Caps defenseman, the first two stories were one about his road trip from British Columbia to Washington, the other a story about his treating his dogs to McDonalds to celebrate Murphy’s fifth birthday (he would be one of the dogs). The dogs are probably more the “wild child” sort than is Alzner, as we found out a couple of years ago after a playoff game. They (well, sort of) even have their own Twitter feed.
It is that sort of low-key, balanced, dependable, salt of the earth sort of approach Alzner has brought to the ice in his five seasons in Washington (and gets him upstaged by his dogs). He is not flashy, what with a career 82-game scoring pace of 2-12-14, plus-5 and having only two multi-point games in a 263-game career in the regular season.
He does, however, draw the tough assignments. In terms of 5-on-5 ice time faced, the top ten he faced in 2013 include:
Martin St. Louis
That is, of course, heavily weighted to the Southeast Division, but that is a product of scheduling. Against other divisions, though… he drew Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin most often from among the Boston Bruins. It was Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan from the New York Rangers. Evgeni Malkin and James Neal from Pittsburgh (source: stats.hockeyanalysis.com). Alzner does not draw grinders.
The result was that his goals against/60 minutes at 5-on-5 was better than Dion Phaneuf, better than Rob Scuderi, better than Jay Bouwmeester, better than Robyn Regehr. Perhaps as important, his being the stay-at-home sort allowed Mike Green to do his thing in the offensive side of the game (Alzner skated almost four times as many minutes with Green at 5-on-5 than he did with any other Caps defenseman).
Offense always lends itself more readily to analysis than defense, and Karl Alzner is a defensive defenseman. So let’s look at this a bit subjectively for a moment. Alzner signed a four-year/$11.2 million deal last July, a salary cap hit of $2.8 million a year. If you look at his age, date of his contract signing, and cap hit, then compare it to his “comparable” comparables (from capgeek.com), the list looks like Michael Del Zotto, Jared Spurgeon, P.K. Subban, and Carl Gunnarsson. Except for Subban, Alzner looks like a very good deal, even compared with this group.
This is also a defenseman with fewer offensive zone starts at 5-on-5 last season than guys like Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Mark Stuart, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, Kimmo Timonen, and Anton Volchenkov. Alzner has to be considered among the best at what he does among defensemen 25 or younger (he turns 25 on Tuesday).
It is one thing to say that Karl Alzner tending to business in his own end frees things up for Mike Green to do his thing at the offensive end. But if Alzner poses no threat in the offensive end, do teams load up to make things harder for Green on his side of the ice? Green had 12 points at even strength in 35 games, only four assists. That put him in the company of Alexei Emelin, Zach Bogosian, and Andrej Sekera in terms of even strength points per game.
The Big Question… Does Karl Alzner have another gear in his offensive game?
Even by Karl Alzner’s modest standard, last year was a barren year on offense. Going into last season his career per-82 game average scoring line was 2-13-15. Last year he was 1-4-5 in 48 games, which works out to a 2-7-9 82-game scoring rate. Alzner is not going to be the sort of defenseman who rushes the puck up ice to create offense, as does Mike Green. He is not going to pound the net with booming shots like a John Carlson. However, Alzner recorded progressively higher point totals when he played in Calgary in Canadian junior hockey, and he had a pair of 20-plus point seasons in Hershey in partial seasons before joining the Caps for good. There could be some untapped potential there.
The idea here is not an either-or matter, that Alzner needs to trade some of his defensive game for a larger offensive footprint. He is still young enough, at soon-to-be 25, to expand his game, to add more layers to it. Part of it is efficiency. Among defensemen playing in at least half his team’s games, Alzner finished tied for 137th in shooting percentage at 2.6 percent, and that was higher than his career average going into the season (2.4 percent). Another part of it is effectiveness. Among that same group of defensemen last season, Alzner finished 121st in total shots on goal.
Alzner is not likely to be a 20-point defenseman this season, but if he can be more of a threat from his side of the ice (and this is where coaching will come into play), even if he is not as prolific as a Mike Green or John Carlson, he could make defenses more honest. Just a little more shot volume and maybe a little more efficiency on the shots he does take could do the trick.
In the end…
Alzner appears to have found an unexpected home. The thinking since he and John Carlson broke into the league was that the two would form a foundation defensive pairing for a decade or more. Last season Alzner spent more time with Mike Green at 5-on-5 (508:54) than he did with the rest of the roster defensemen combined (336:09), including John Carlson (79:38). That now being a pair grown familiar with one another, better things might be in store at both ends of the ice.
However, any offense Alzner generates is, frankly, gravy for this team. His stock in trade is his ability to deny the offense of others. He does it, not with bone-crushing hits (107th among 289 defensemen last season) or blocked shots (37th), but with body and stick position, and a growing sense of awareness that comes with experience. In that respect, what Caps fans should be expecting is that he do more of it. Just don’t expect him to be flashy doing it. Leave “flashy” to the dogs.
Projection: 82 games, 3-12-15, plus-6
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America