Sunday, May 17, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Karl Alzner

“I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be.”
-- Douglas Adams

If you are not an offensive defenseman with a big shot or an ability to run a power play, or if you are not a big hitter on the back end for your club, your value is in being where you need to be on defense – a positional defender who depends on angles, stick placement, and position to prevent opponents from getting scoring chances and goals.

For Karl Alzner, the 2014-2015 season was a huge improvement in the most basic of metrics for a defenseman – goals allowed on ice.  Last season, Alzner was on ice for 85 goals against, second most on the team and top (or bottom, depending on your perspective) 30 in the league.  In 2014-2015, Alzner shaved that number by 30 goals against, to 55.  Part of that was time on ice.  Alzner, while skating in all 82 games for fourth time in his career (and in every game for the fifth consecutive year), recorded almost 100 fewer total minutes in total ice time.  That, in turn, was a reflection of his playing primarily a second pairing role with Matt Niskanen. 

In his ten-game progression, there is the trend.  Alzner had as slow start in what for him (or rather, given his responsibilities) were revealing statistics.  Over his first three ten-game segments he was a minus-5 and had a minus-ten overall goal differential.

From that stuttering start, however, he took off.  In his fourth ten game segment, Alzner was 2-2-4, plus-10 and had a total goal differential of plus-9.  It was his best ten-game segment of the season.  However, it was an odd segment in which to do well.  Those ten games were evenly split between teams that would reach the playoffs (Ottawa, the Rangers, Pittsburgh, the Islanders, and Chicago) and five that would not (Columbus, New Jersey, Florida, Toronto, and Philadelphia). He did not record a point in games against the playoff-bound teams.  Alzner was a “plus” player in eight of the ten games and even in the other two.  He was a plus-1 in scoring chances for and against (numbers from, but he was a minus-5 overall in Corsi +/- (total shot attempts for and against).

Overall, Alzner finished the season with career bests in goals (5), assists (16, the third time in four years he hit that number), points (21), and plus-minus (plus-14, matching his 2010-2011 result).  His shooting percentage of 6.9 percent for the season was three times better than his career shooting percentage coming into the season (2.3 percent).

Fearless’ Take: Alzner has been a rather consistent defenseman over his five full seasons with the Caps, with two exceptions, both of them this season.  There is the scoring that Peerless noted, Alzner setting or tying personal bests in goals, assists, and points.  But an edge crept into his game this season.  Hits are a somewhat arbitrary statistic, but even allowing for that he was in a 73-98 range over his previous four seasons.  This season he finished with 120 hits, by far a career high.  More offense, more physical play.  New dimensions in Alzner’s game.

Cheerless’ Take: Let’s go back to those tens, cousins.  His overall Corsi plus-minus over his last three segments covering 32 games was minus-143.  Almost five more shots against than for per game over those games.  The scoring chances plus-minus was minus-82; that was after being a plus-33 over the first five ten-game segments.  His scoring chances plus-minus over his last segment was minus-41, almost three and a half more scoring chances against over those 12 games.

Odd Alzner Fact: Alzner did have a career best five goals this season, but none of them came against an Eastern Conference playoff-eligible team.  He was 0-3-3, even, in 24 games against teams in the East reaching the post season.  His five goals came against New Jersey (2), Florida, Columbus, and St. Louis.

Game to Remember: March 26th versus New Jersey.  The Capitals were coming off a 3-0 shutout loss in Winnipeg against the Jets and a four-day break when the hosted the New Jersey Devils in late March.  Karl Alzner was in a slump, recording only one assist in his previous nine games and no goals in his previous 23 games before taking the ice against the Devils.  The Caps were treading water over their previous eight games, going 4-4-0.  Alzner broke his goal drought early in the contest when he took a pass from Matt Niskanen at the top of the left wing circle, stepped up, and fired a wrist shot that beat goalie Cory Schneider on the short side to give the Caps an early 1-0 lead.  The teams exchanged second period goals, but the Devils got the only third period goal to send the game to overtime.  In the second minute of the extra session, Evgeny Kuznetsov tried to feed Marcus Johansson cutting to the net, but Damon Severson got a stick on the puck to deflect it away from Johansson.  The puck came bouncing out to the right point where Alzner one timed a backhand pass to Matt Niskanen on the left point.  Niskanen fired a shot that Kuznetsov redirected past Schneider, giving the Caps a 3-2 win, a victory that would sent the Caps off on a 6-2-1 finish to the regular season and give Alzner his second two-point game of the season.

Game to Forget:  November 1st versus Tampa Bay.  The Caps were not off to the hottest of starts with new head coach Barry Trotz.  They played October to a 4-3-2 record and were 1-3-0 to finish the month.  Things did not look a lot better to start this game.  Ryan Callahan scored just over six minutes into the game, sneaking out from behind the net to redirect a Brian Boyle shot while Alzner was occupied by Brenden Morrow in front of the net.  After the Caps took a 2-1 lead in the second, the Lightning tied the game in the tenth minute of the period when Alzner got caught chasing – first Tyler Johnson as he was curling through the faceoff circle with the puck, then, when Johnson fed the puck forward, Nikita Kucherov behind the Tampa Bay net.  Kucherov fed the puck back to Ondrej Palat in the space Alzner departed, and the Lightning forward snapped it into the net to tie the game.  Kucherov victimized Alzner for the Lightning’s third goal when he redirected a drive by Eric Brewer with Alzner on his left hip.  The Caps tied the game late in the period – a Troy Brouwer power play goal in the last minute – but the Lightning won with a third period goal from Jason Garrison.  The three goals Alzner was on ice for was his high for the season.

Postseason:  2-2-4, even, 1 GWG

Alzner set career bests in offensive contributions in the playoffs, too.  It was very much a front-loaded contribution, though.  He had two goals in the Caps’ first five games of the first round against the New York Islanders, then recorded just one assist in his last nine post season games.  As it was, his two goals led the Caps’ defensemen in the playoffs (the team had only three), and his four points was tied for second among blueliners.  The goals against were a bit more disturbing.  After being on ice for 0.67 goals per game in the regular season, Alzner was on ice for 11 goals against in 14 games (0.79). 

His Corsi-for share (47.95 percent) was not significantly different from his regular season result (46.35), another indicator of consistency and dependability (at least in terms of what to expect) in Alzner’s game.

The better level of competition and the small number of games does not make his overall contribution significantly different in the post season compared to his regular season performance, but like a number of other Caps, he was not quite up to what was needed in the strongest parts of his game.

In the end…

Being a defensive defenseman in the NHL is a little like being a cornerback in the National Football League.  No matter how good you are, you are going to get beat from time to time.  Even though Karl Alzner’s role changed a bit this season – moved off the top pair with John Carlson to play second pair minutes – his game is still one of being a “shutdown” defenseman.  And in that role, he was better this year than last.  Or, perhaps more accurately, more effective, as reflected in so many fewer goals scored against the Caps with Alzner on ice. 

Part of that might be attributed to better coaching.  The Caps had a much more experienced group behind the bench this season than they had last season.  However, the player still needs to execute.  For the most part, Alzner did.  His offensive numbers established a career standard, and his goals against/on ice was quite a year-to-year improvement. 

But there were some underlying elements one would like to see Alzner improve upon, the Corsi and scoring chance numbers, for instance.  On balance, though, it was a good year for Alzner.  He will have just turned 27 years old when the season dawns next October, a signal that he is entering what should be his prime years.  In that sense, we see what Alzner is, although he might be a better version of it in the years to come – durable, dependable, unspectacular.  It might be the perfect description of a second pair defenseman, a role for which Alzner might be well suited, one that he played quite well in 2014-2015.  It might not be where one thought a fifth-overall draft pick might go, but for the Capitals it is a place he needs to be.

Grade: B

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America