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Alzner Aims for Elite Company

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Washington Capitals prospect Karl Alzner was recently named the Four Broncos Trophy winner as the best player in the Western Hockey League. Alzner was also named the WHL’s best defenseman, and he was named the CHL’s Molson Canadian Defenseman of the Year.

The Capitals’ first-round choice (fifth overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Alzner is just 19; he won’t turn 20 until just before the 2008-09 NHL season. Recently signed to a three-year entry level contract, Alzner’s days with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen are over. He will turn pro this season, and the only question is whether he will be able to make the leap directly from junior hockey to the NHL or whether he will require some AHL seasoning at some point.

Washington’s roster is already dotted with players chosen in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft, including some (Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom) who have made it to the NHL without any minor league seasoning. Things are different for defensemen, though. Rare is the defenseman who can jump to the NHL without even a brief stopover in the minors somewhere along the way. And now that the Capitals are once again a playoff-caliber team, they may not be able to afford Alzner as much patience as he would have gotten as a rookie with Washington two or three years ago.

Alzner is the 17th defenseman Washington has chosen in the first round of the draft. Only four of his predecessors have managed to leap straight to the NHL, and none has done so since Kevin Hatcher (17th overall) in 1984. Hatcher made the jump to the NHL in his draft year, while Alzner will be attempting to do so in the year following his draft year, as both Ovechkin and Backstrom did.

Since the draft took on its “modern” form in 1969, 175 defensemen have been chosen within the top 15 selections of the draft. Only 55 of them have gone on to reach and remain in the NHL without minor league stopovers. That group includes former Caps blueliners Rick Green (first overall in 1976), Robert Picard (third overall in 1977), and Scott Stevens (fifth overall in 1982).

Interestingly, 20 of the 55 defensemen who made it without collecting a minor league paycheck were drafted in a four-year span from 1979-82, immediately after the World Hockey Association merged with the NHL. During those four years, 20 of the 29 defensemen drafted in the top 15 made it to the NHL without playing in the minors. The group includes Hockey Hall of Famers Raymond Bourque, Larry Murphy, Paul Coffey and Stevens as well as likely future Hall of Famer Phil Housley.

The odds are even better with defensemen taken in the top five, as Alzner was. Thirty of the 57 defensemen selected in the top five of the NHL Entry Draft have made it to the NHL without requiring minor league seasoning along the way. Again, a large percentage of those (seven of the 30) came during that 1979-82 period. 

The ability to make the leap (combined with being drafted high, of course) seems to predict a long career. In the last 21 NHL Entry Drafts, 32 defensemen were chosen in the top five. Thirteen of them went straight to the NHL, and all 13 were still active in the NHL in 2007-08. This group included greybeards Glen Wesley (third overall in 1987) of Carolina and Scott Niedermayer (third overall in 1991). It’s also worth noting that a few greybeards taken just beyond the top five who made it to the NHL without a stopover in the minors were still active last year: Luke Richardson (seventh overall in 1987) skated for Ottawa last season and Darryl Sydor (seventh in 1990) is currently vying for a third Stanley Cup ring with a third different team as he patrols the Penguins’ blueline this spring.

Besides wondering how smooth his transition from junior hockey to the NHL will be, Caps fans are likely wondering what Alzner’s eventual role will be. Few area fans have seen him play live at any level, aside from rookie camp, training camp and NHL preseason.

In the wake of Alzner’s recent hardware haul, several of the media reports referred to him as either a “stay-at-home defenseman” or a “shutdown” defenseman. That’s a good thing; there are 30 teams in the NHL, but there are barely 30 blueliners worthy of the “shutdown defenseman” label in the league at the moment.

For the purposes of a loose definition, let’s say this “shutdown defenseman” averages 22 or more a night, generally plays against the opposition’s top offensive unit, and is one of his team’s most frequently used defensemen on the penalty killing unit.

How many NHL defensemen played half or more of their team’s games, averaged 22 or more minutes per game and ranked among the top two on their team in shorthanded ice time last season?

The answer: 32.

The list includes the usual suspects: Jay Bouwmeester, Zdeno Chara, Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Pronger, Adam Foote, Rob Blake, Chris Phillips.

It also includes a few guys known more for their offensive ability: Sergei Gonchar, Sergei Zubov, Dennis Wideman, Filip Kuba, Kimmo Timonen.

If you remove those defensemen with negative plus/minus ratings, the list thins from 32 to just 19.

Washington’s Tom Poti made the cut; he’s the only Cap with the creds. And many would have made Poti as primarily an offensive defenseman going into last season.

We won’t know for several years how Alzner will fare at the next level, and it will be no easy task for him to come into the NHL and immediately play 22 minutes a night while logging lots of shorthanded ice time. That said, Alzner appears to have the skills set necessary for success in the NHL. He is smart, he moves the puck well and he is mobile. If Alzner is able to establish himself as a “shutdown defenseman” at the NHL level during the three years of his entry level contract, it will go a long way toward establishing the Capitals as a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup.

Here are a few links to some recent pieces on Alzner written by those who have watched him play at the junior level.

Karl Alzner and Chet Pickard honoured at CHL Award Ceremony

Alzner named WHL player of the year; top defenceman

Stanley Cup clash between Pens and Wings will be worth the wait (scroll down to "Around the League" section at the bottom
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