A year from now, the Caps would love for Alzner to have made the first-year impact that Backstrom did as an NHL freshman in the District. But it is much more difficult to go straight to the NHL from the amateur ranks as a top pair (or even top four) defenseman than it is as a top six forward.
Backstrom was Washington’s first choice (fourth overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. The 20-year-old native of Sweden is now a finalist for the NHL’s Calder Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s top rookie. He played in all 82 games, had 14 goals and set a single-season franchise rookie record with 55 assists.
Although Washington’s team defense took a quantum leap forward in the second half, the Caps could still use a bona fide shutdown defender. That was Alzner’s role with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen in 2007-08, and it was his role with Team Canada at the 2008 World Junior Championship. He excelled at that task with both teams.
Alzner was Washington’s first choice (fifth overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. The 19-year-old from British Columbia was named the 2007-08 recipient of the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the WHL’s player of the year. Alzner was also named the WHL’s best defenseman for 2007-08. He is also the WHL’s nominee for CHL player of the year. Two previous Capitals prospects were named CHL player of the year: Pat Peake (1992-93) and Jason Allison (1993-94).
Alzner had seven goals and 36 points for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen and was a plus-26 defensively. He captained the Hitmen and also served as captain for Team Canada’s gold medal-winning squad at the 2008 World Junior Championship.
Last summer, Alzner attended his first summer development camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. He also came to training camp with Washington last fall, and made his NHL preseason debut in a game against the Hurricanes in Carolina.
This September, Alzner will come to camp with a better chance of earning a roster spot.
“I had a lot more confidence after playing that one game,” says Alzner of his NHL preseason experience last fall. “My expectations are going to be the same as last year. I know I’m going to be nervous and excited at the same time.”
Alzner says he worked on “the little things” with the Hitmen in 2007-08, and now wants to improve his game at the far end of the rink.
“For my game where it is right now, I want to be more of an offensive threat,” he declares, invoking the name of future Caps teammate Mike Green
in that regard.
“I want to be better in every part of the game but that’s the main one I’m going to be focusing on for now.”
Just days before the start of the 2008-09 NHL season, Alzner will celebrate his 20th birthday. Despite his youth and the improving Washington defense, Alzner has a legitimate shot at cracking the Caps’ opening night roster for the upcoming season, and if he proves capable of the task, he could find himself skating top four minutes for Washington on the blueline.
“Whether he stays with our team is up to him,” says Caps general manager George McPhee. “If he’s good enough to play here and make us a better team, then he’ll play. We’ll make room for someone who can make us better and we expect he can make us better.”
Last season, five rookie defensemen played in 70 or more NHL games while averaging 20 or more minutes per night: Atlanta’s Tobias Enstrom (24:28), Edmonton’s Tom Gilbert (22:11), Los Angeles’ Jack Johnson (21:41), Vancouver’s Alexander Edler and Dallas’ Matt Niskanen. All five of those defensemen were older last season than Alzner will be in 2009-10. All five also took different developmental routes to the NHL than Alzner has to date.
Enstrom and Edler are both European, although Edler did play junior hockey in the CHL. Gilbert, Johnson and Niskanen came through the U.S. collegiate ranks. Enstrom and Johnson are the only two of the five who bypassed the minors en route to the NHL.
In 2006-07, San Jose’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic was the only rookie NHL defenseman who played in more than 70 games while averaging 20 or more minutes per game. Vlasic was several months younger than Alzner will be during his rookie season. He skated an average of 22:11 for the Sharks as a first-year NHLer.
In the season immediately after the lockout, five rookie rearguards skated an average of more than 20 minutes a night over 70 or more regular season contests: Chicago’s Duncan Keith (23:45), Anaheim’s Francois Beauchemin (23:09), Phoenix’s Zbynek Michalek (22:49), Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf (21:43) and the Rangers’ Fedor Tyutin (20:33).
Among the members of the class of 2005-06, only Phaneuf made the jump straight from junior hockey to the NHL as Vlasic did and as Alzner will be attempting to do.
“In Calgary, if I had to guess, I’d say I played about half the game every game,” says Alzner.
Alzner estimates that he played anywhere from 25-35 minutes a night depending on the number of penalties his team took on a given night. He would often stay out for three-quarters or more of a two-minute minor with Calgary’s penalty killing unit.
“I don’t think his game has changed a lot,” notes Caps general manager George McPhee. “He is what he was when we drafted him. He is a very, very smart and reliable defenseman who is good defensively. That’s where you have to start with defensemen; you have to be able to play well defensively. He doesn’t take penalties and he is very conscientious. He takes a lot of pride in being good defensively. His stick positioning and everything else is excellent. We love the way he plays the game. We’re always looking for that kind of defenseman.
“We think there is offensive upside there and he mentioned that as well. He shoots the puck really well. It will take a little bit to develop that. I think he just needs to develop some confidence in that part of the game and he’ll be fine.”
The jump from junior to the NHL is a significant one, and Alzner may need a bit of minor league seasoning before he settles into the NHL for good; many others in his shoes have. But Alzner has most of the characteristics needed for success at the highest level of hockey.
“I think he’ll transition very well,” says McPhee. “The ability to read the play is most important. He has great hockey sense. He makes good reads, he doesn’t get caught out of position and he anticipates very well. He is very, very patient. He doesn’t go running around; he holds his position. He is a real poised player who is more mature in that part of the game than most players at that age.
“Guys that do well at this level are the guys who are mature, and smart and have good character. He has all those attributes.”
Caps fans will get their first look at Alzner when he reports to Washington for the team’s annual summer development camp on July 7.