Monday, September 06, 2010

2010-2011 Previews: Defensemen -- Karl Alzner

Labor Day has come and gone here in the States, which means we now begin our headlong rush to training camp and the opening of the 2010-2011 NHL regular season. And with that, we begin our 2010-2011 previews of the Caps with a look at the defensemen.

Karl Alzner

Theme: “You’re still here?”

Between a bad finish in April, the emergence of John Carlson as the prospect defenseman to watch, and a summer inactivity on the part of the club, one might be forgiven for forgetting that Karl Alzner is still a Capital and is ready to finally stick as a member of the big club. Unlike last year, when the Caps had perhaps seven defensemen ahead of him on the depth chart, Alzner is slotted to be an every night starter this time around.

Last year might have been something of a disappointment for the fifth overall draft pick in 2007. Alzner played in only 21 regular season games, none after February 13th. But he remains the games-played leader (51) among defensemen drafted in his 2007 class.

Still, those 21 games last year did not improve much, if at all on the 30 in which he played in 2008-2009. The last half of his NHL stint last season was especially disappointing. After going 0-4-4, plus-2 and skating 18:25 in ice time per game in his first ten games, he was 0-1-1, minus-4, and skated an average of only 14:34 in his last 11 games.

But Alzner was an important cog in the Hershey Bears’ march to a second consecutive Calder Cup. Upon returning to Hershey Alzner finished the regular season 2-12-14, plus-11 in 26 games, then went 3-7-10, plus-7, in 20 post-season games. Sandwiched between the two was his appearance in Game 7 of the Easter Conference Quarterfinal series against Montreal in which he skated 15 minutes and change (no points scored, no goals scored against while on the ice). Based on his end-of-year performance, one would have to think he is done proving he can play at the AHL level and will now embark on his NHL career in earnest.

What might we expect in terms of Alzner? He will probably start the season on the third pairing. Given the state of the Caps’ defense, he will probably get some penalty killing time. On the other hand, if he gets any power play time at all, it’s because he’s taking the ice as a power play expires. He averaged 16:24 in ice time in his 21 games last year, and for the moment, that looks to be what his high-side might look like.

What he is not going to be is a big hitter or a big scorer. Of the returning Caps defensemen, he had the second-lowest hits-per-game average last season (Tom Poti ranked lowest… bet you thought it was Jeff Schultz). And, in 51 career regular games he is 1-9-10. What he is going to be is smart, sound, and capable in his own end. At least that’s the game plan. Any “numbers” he puts up is gravy. You guys have anything to add?

Fearless: Talk about strange numbers. The Caps were 11-2-0 in games Alzner played against the East last year, but he was a minus-6 in those games. The Caps were 4-3-1 in games he played against the West, but he was plus-4. Does that mean anything? No.

Cheerless: Cuz, you said that Alzner wasn’t going to be a big hitter or a big scorer. I’m just worried if he’ll be a “no-show” as the season wears on. You said he had a pretty good first ten games and a pretty poor eleven games to finish up. Well, that’s what he did the year before, too. In his first 17 games he was 1-3-4, plus-7, then he was 0-1-1, minus-8 in his last 13 games. That’s 1-7-8, plus-9 in the “first half” and 0-2-2, minus-12 in the “second half” over two years. If the Caps don’t add a defenseman, they’re going to need this guy next spring. And it can’t be with that “second half” stuff, either.

In the end…

Alzner has to avoid having a good start dissolve into an iffy finish. And with an 82-game season, that might be an issue. Under normal circumstances, he might benefit from the odd night off in those grey days of January and February. But the Caps don’t have a lot of strength in terms of the 7/8 defensemen that might get a sweater in his place. His game is to play mistake-free hockey. If you don’t notice him, chances are he’s getting the job done. However, we should not forget, either, that Alzner has yet to reach his 22nd birthday (he turns 22 on September 24th). It is one thing to expect a top-five draft pick to be a cornerstone contributor at 25 or 28; it’s another to expect that at this age (and we’ve seen what experience means to defensemen). He might need to have his time managed. If he starts fading as the season wears on, that’s when mistakes happen, and he’ll be noticed…not in a good way.


66 games, 2-9-11, +8