“I've spent most of my mature life trying to prove that I'm not irresponsible.”
-- Orson Welles
When the cream of the amateur crop was being evaluated in advance of the 2007 draft, here is what some pundits had to say about Karl Alzner…
“Alzner is clearly the top defender in this year's class because of the completeness of his game and the general assurance he will become a very good NHL defenseman without much "bust" potential. He understands the game and does all things very well, thus should be a very high pick.”
-- Mark Seidel, ESPN
“A skilled stay-at-home defenseman with good skating ability… is calm under pressure and composed with the puck… has good positioning and reads the play well… has a strong shot from the point… wins battles along the boards and in his own zone…”
-- NHL Central Scouting
“Alzner is described by some a true modern-day defenceman, whose ability to play strong positionally and whose stick-on-puck, stick-on-stick game is good. He also gets shots through from the point. While the odd scout has Alzner outside of the top 10, most have him there solidly…”
These are representative views of Alzner, who at the time was thought to be solid, responsible, not flashy, dependable. If he was a movie character, he’d have been the upstanding guy, the faithful sidekick whose partner is the flashy one who gets all the attention.
Fast forward to 2015, and Alzner is still the solid, responsible, dependable defenseman, but last season he added more of an offensive dimension to his game. They were not Erik Karlsson or P.K. Subban numbers (or John Carlson, for that matter), but Alzner did set career highs in goals (five), points (21), and shooting percentage (6.9), while tying career highs in assists (16) and plus-minus (plus-14). He did it by extending his consecutive games played streak to 376. Alzner is one of just four players in the NHL to have played in every game of the last five seasons with just one team (teammate John Carlson, San Jose’s Patrick Marleau, and Phil Kessel – then of the Toronto Maple Leafs – are the others).
Alzner had his fury unleashed in one respect in 2014-2015. He set a career high – by a wide margin – in credited hits for a season (120, his second highest being 98 in 2010-2011). He also set a career high in blocked shots (165).
What was either a surprise or disappointing, depending on your perspective, was that Alzner was second among Caps defensemen in scoring in the 2015 postseason. His four points in 14 games tied Matt Niskanen behind John Carlson (6). Nice for Alzner, but one would not expect (or think it a good reflection on the club) to have one of its “stay-at-home” defensemen ranked that highly in scoring.
Alzner’s offense was not padded against a collection of stiffs. Of the 19 games in which he recorded points, nine of them were against teams that reached the post season: 1-5-6, plus-5 against the West, 0-3-3, plus-2 against the East. His points per game have increased steadily over the past five seasons, interrupted only by the drop he experienced in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, from 0.15 in 2010-2011 to 0.26 points per game last year.
As a “defensive” defenseman, his possession statistics might not tell a detailed tale, but there was a consistency to Alzner’s numbers. Looking at ten-game segments, Alzner’s Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 was over 50 percent in five segments, under in three (but only once below 48.0 percent), and he was 51.0 percent for the season (numbers from war-on-ice.com). Not extraordinary, but…well, dependable.
Let’s not make too much out of that offensive “improvement,” cuz. He’s 19th in his draft class in career goals per game (0.03), right between Justin Braun and Keith Aulie, and points per game (0.19), right between Cade Fairchild (ok, only five games played) and Paul Postma.
If he is not an elite offensive defenseman, is he an elite shutdown defenseman? We could start with the bottom line, how many goals against is he on ice for? Not that he is to blame for every goal against when he’s out there, but this is about “shutting down” the other side. Among 99 defensemen appearing in at least 70 games last season, Alzner finished tied for 29th in fewest goals against/on-ice (55). Is “top-third” a shutdown defenseman? Marc Staal was on for more (67). So was Shea Weber (96) and Ryan Suter (100). So was Duncan Keith (105). So there is that.
Then there is shots against. Among 170 defensemen with 750 or more 5-on-5 minutes, Alzner ranks 124th in Corsi against per 60 minutes and 134th in shots against per 60 minutes (numbers from war-on-ice.com). Not that he is the primary cause of all, or perhaps even most of those shots, but this is about “shutting down,” too.
The Big Question… Is Karl Alzner at the top of his development curve?
If one subscribes to the notion that an NHL player does not enter his prime until he reaches 27 years of age, then Karl Alzner’s “prime” starts today (he turns 27 on September 24th). He has displayed modest improvement in his offensive game over the past several seasons, but it would appear he will never be a consistent contributor at that end. Twenty points per season might be the benchmark against which his performance can be evaluated (he had 21 last season). That said, Alzner has been a consistent and dependable defender. He is not going to do it with thunderous hits (despite his career high in credited hits last season), but with angles and position. He outperforms his possession numbers in terms of high-quality scoring chances as a share of total scoring chances (85th among 170 defensemen playing at least 750 5-on-5 minutes; numbers from war-on-ice.com). His approach is more a cerebral one than a physical one.
But we are still left with the question, is he at the top of his developmental curve? The nature of his improvements in performance (incremental), the nature of his game suggest what looks like more of s fully formed game (within the bounds of his potential) than one might find in a player on the cusp of his “prime.” The player seen over the past few years might be the player we see going forward, and this is where we say “consistent and dependable” again.
In the end…
What you see is what you get with Alzner. There is not a lot of variation from game to game, month to month. That’s not flashy, but it is valuable. That he is a second pair defenseman who could play first pair minutes is no slight, even if he was a fifth overall pick and second defenseman taken in the 2007 draft. If nothing else, Alzner’s dependability and consistency on the back end is one less potential for drama on a team that would like to avoid any of it in what looks to be their best chance in recent years to compete for a Stanley Cup.
But with this consistency and dependability is the flip side of the coin. He is not, and probably never will be, an impact player as the term is commonly known. He is part of the chorus, necessary but perhaps not indispensable. It does not render him unimportant. That the Caps employ a player with Alzner’s abilities on it second line speaks to the depth the club has developed on the blue line. He will have to continue being the responsible player that he has been his entire professional career for the Caps to have a legitimate chance at going deep into the postseason.
Projection: 82 games, 4-15-19, plus-13
Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America