“The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion.”
-- Alexander Graham Bell
It does not seem all that long ago that Karl Alzner was making his debut in the National Hockey League with the Washington Capitals, getting 30 games of experience in the 2008-2009 season. But with 215 games of regular season games under his belt coming into the 2013 season, the expectations for Alzner were not the modest ones of a prospect. He would not – and likely will never – put up big high-end numbers as a defenseman. Four goals and 39 points in those 215 games are not the numbers of an offensive defenseman.
No, the expectation for Alzner was for that of a shutdown defenseman. A player who could be matched against an opponent’s top line and who would reliably – or at least more often than not – be the key to keeping that line in check. After all, what we said at this time last year suggested Alzner would be that shutdown defenseman…
“Of Capitals defensemen playing in at least 30 games this season he faced the stiffest competition at 5-on-5 (behindthenet.ca). He had the highest Corsi value relative to quality of competition. Despite facing that high quality of competition, he had the second best on-ice save percentage against, and he had the second-highest “PDO” at 5-on-5 (shooting percentage plus save percentage). This simple measure is a transparent expression of efficiency. When factoring in the quality of competition faced by Alzner, he stood at the top of the Capitals blueline corps in terms of efficiency this season.”
This season, things were a bit different, and not necessarily in a good way. At 5-on-5 Alzner’s Corsi relative to competition dropped from 1.403 to 0.479. His PDO dropped from 1017 to 992. His goals-against/on ice per 60 minutes rose from 2.20 to 2.55. And this with more frequency of offensive zone starts. As a “defensive” defenseman, Alzner is not going to get the majority of his zone starts in the offensive end, but he did record 46.7 percent of his zone starts in that end compared to 41.6 percent in 2011-2012 (numbers from behindthenet.ca).
With an abbreviated season, one wonders whether this fact had effects on any player, Alzner included. The “tens” paint an odd picture in that regard. Like the rest of the club, Alzner got off to a poor start. He did not have a point and was a minus-3 after those first ten games, during which the Caps were 2-7-1. Alzner was on ice for 17 of the 36 goals scored against the Caps in those ten games, almost a third of the goals against for which he was on ice for the season (55).
There is a push-pull question here. Hockey can be at times a “circumstantial” sport. A player – Alzner in this case – might be present for an event, such as a goal scored against, but would not necessarily be the proximate cause of that even taking place. Was Alzner a factor in poor performance or a victim of circumstance? Still, Alzner has a role to play on this team, and having been on ice for goals in nine of the first ten games of the season, it did not appear as if that role was being filled as well as it could be, even if he was not the only player of whom that could be said.
Then, as if a light went on, Alzner was 1-2-3, plus-4 over his next 20 games, during which the Caps went 11-9-0, righting a foundering ship. But then, Alzner’s game regressed, almost as if fatigue was a factor. In his last 17 games he was 1-1-1, minus-9, while the team was going 13-2-2. Alzner was on ice for half of the goals scored against the Caps in those 17 games (21 of 42).
From a distance, Alzner’s season looked as if it broke into three pieces – a warm-up stretch in which he struggled, as if the late season start left him at the starting gate; a middle stretch in which he was on top of his game; then a late group of games in which he struggled again.
Odd Alzner Fact… Think there might have been a “Southeast Division” effect in his results? Against the weak sisters of the Southeast, Alzner was 1-2-3, plus-7, in 18 games. Against everyone else he was 0-2-2, minus-13, in 30 games.
Game to Remember… April 7th vs. Tampa Bay. On a night when the story line was Alex Ovechkin climbing into a tie for the league goal-scoring lead (he had two goals), Alzner was his typical steady self. In 25:34 of ice time he was not on ice for either of the goals the Lightning scored in the 4-2 Caps win. And over an 11:40 stretch of the third period with the Caps clinging to a one-goal lead, Alzner logged 5:58 in ice time over five shifts, his last shift – 1:37 in length – ending when Ovechkin scored an empty net goal to seal the win.
Game to Forget… April 13th vs. Tampa Bay. Less than a week after his memorable game, Alzner was part of a team breakdown in the third period that saw the Caps lose a 5-1 lead when the Lightning scored four goals in the last 21:13 of regulation. Alzner was on ice for two of the three goals the Lightning scored in the third period of that contest, the last coming with just 2:35 left in regulation. He finished that game with a season-worst minus-3. It was the first time he finished that low in minus territory since his rookie season, when he finished minus-3 in a 5-4 Gimmick loss to the New York Rangers on February 11, 2009.
Post-Season… Alzner was on ice for only two of the 16 goals scored by the Rangers, the fewest of any Capital defenseman while skating the second most minutes (129:00) of any Cap defenseman at 5-on-5 (Mike Green: 147:40). The only goal on which Alzner could bear the slightest fault was Carl Hagelin’s goal to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead in the Rangers’ 4-3 win in Game 4. In that instance, Alzner was late and not very aggressive at the Capitals’ blue line in trying to interrupt the pass from Derick Brassard to Hagelin that led to the goal. Otherwise, Alzner had an impressive post-season.
In the end…
Like so many of the Capitals, this was a learning year for Alzner. His lesson came in accommodating a new partner. Last season, Alzner played 65 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with John Carlson. In 2010-2011 it was 79 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes spent with Carlson. This season, it was less than 11 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes (numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com). Alzner’s primary partner at 5-on-5 this season was Mike Green, with whom he spent 59 percent of his 5-on-5 time. He also spent substantial amounts of time with Tomas Kundratek (18 percent) and Steve Oleksy (12 percent).
The way Alzner’s time was parceled among other defensemen also point to the manner in which the club depends on him to be that shutdown defenseman, or at least the reliable partner. His principal partners were one who is primarily an offensive defenseman (Green) and two youngsters who might have needed a chaperone from time to time (Kundratek, Oleksy).
In that context it is reasonable to expect Alzner’s 48-game results would experience some ups and downs, not entirely of his doing. One might think of this as a transition year for Alzner, from prospect or young, up-and-coming defenseman, to that of the cornerstone defender the team is going to depend on over the next few years. It will make things interesting in terms of his next contract, Alzner being a restricted free agent. But for now, this season, Alzner had a solid, if not great season.
photo: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images North America