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Caps Get Their Man Alzner

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
COLUMBUS, Oh. -- There were some anxious moments, but for the second straight Entry Draft the Capitals got their man. Washington chose defenseman Karl Alzner with the fifth overall choice in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Alzner is the player most experts believe is closest to being NHL ready in this draft, and he is also the player the Caps targeted as the one they wanted.

Everyone knew that forwards Patrick Kane, James vanRiemsdyk and Kyle Turris would be chosen with the first three picks, and they were. Chicago, Philadelphia and Phoenix took them, respectively. Then Los Angeles was next on the board at No. 4, making its highest choice since it took center Olli Jokinen with the third pick in 1997. Washington general manager George McPhee and his staff were worried that the Kings would either take Alzner or trade the pick to some other club that would take the 18-year-old Calgary Hitmen defenseman.

Not to worry, though. The Kings went with another WHL blueliner, Thomas Hickey of the Seatle Thunderbirds. That paved the way for McPhee to choose Alzner, the third defenseman the Caps have taken with the fifth pick over the years. Washington chose Darren Veitch with the fifth overall choice in 1980 and tabbed Scott Stevens at No. 5 in 1982.

A native of Burnaby, B.C., Alzner attended last year’s draft in Vancouver as a spectator. The feeling was different this time around. Most predicted Alzner would go anywhere from the fourth to the eighth picks, but Alzner was a bit surprised to hear his name called when it was.

“I actually waited a little bit less than I thought,” he says. “I thought I was going to go a little bit later. So I was a little bit surprised. This year compared to last year, I prepared a lot better. I wore a shirt underneath my dress shirt and it kind of soaked up a little bit of perspiration. Also my legs were a lot more wobbly and my stomach was churning. That was the main difference that I felt this time.”

Alzner became the first Caps draft choice to pull on the team’s new sweater, and he issued a glowing review.

“I think they’re awesome,” he exudes. “I’m a big fan of these. I didn’t know there was going to be a new uniform. I love them. It goes a little bit old school here. I saw a guy in the stands a little bit earlier, he was wearing a Dino Ciccarelli jersey. It was awesome. I was just saying I think those are sweet. To go back to those is a good choice. I really like it.”

McPhee was relieved to have gotten his man for the second year in a row, and now the Caps can turn their attention to Saturdays doings. Rounds 2-7 take place at Nationwide Arena beginning at 10 a.m.

“We’re really pleased we got the guy we wanted in the draft,” says McPhee. “We know he is in the bank and we’ll just keep trying to improve the club in other ways [Saturday].”

During his early days with the Hitmen, Alzner skated alongside former Hitmen blueliner and current Capital Jeff Schultz. Schultz was the Caps’ second choice (27th overall) in the first round of the 2004 Entry Draft. Schultz and Alzner work out together during the offseason at the same gym in Calgary.

Alzner tries to pattern his game after that of Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate.

“The player that I like to compare myself to – I try to go after the best – I think Nick Lidstrom is by far one of the best players in the league,” states Alzner. “I think I play pretty similar to him. I use my stick well, I try to be in the right positions and just solid defensively. That’s the main thing for me. I am obviously not as offensive as him, not yet at least, but I try to pattern it after that. And through this process people have told me I play a lot like Wade Redden which is awesome. I love that comparison. I think he is a great defenseman and I am happy to be categorized with guys like that.”

The addition of Alzner gives Washington a host of defensemen chosen in the first round of NHL Entry Drafts. Shaone Morrisonn was a first rounder in 2001, Steve Eminger in 2002, Schultz and Mike Green in 2004. The Caps also took defensemen Sasha Pokulok and Joe Finley in the first round of the 2005 draft, but neither has advanced to the NHL yet.

“This [rebuilding] process that we’re going through hasn’t been easy,” says McPhee, “And we knew it would take some time. But we’re starting to look at it and say, ‘Okay, it’s there.’ We’ve got the pieces now, we just need them to grow up a little bit.”

Alzner is very mature already, and shouldn’t need to grow up much more before he is ready to don a Capitals sweater for an NHL game. But although Alzner might be the most NHL ready player in this year’s draft, he won’t be handed a job in the fall, and the Caps didn’t take him because he was the closest to being ready to play.

“He is really far along, but we didn’t draft him because we thought he might step in earlier than somebody else,” declares McPhee. “There is some risk in taking someone you think can play right away. You have to take the best player because three years from that point you want to be sure the guy you got was the best guy in the draft. So it would be nice if he could help us early, but we’ll do what we’ve always done and try to bring them along and play them when they’re ready. He’s a mature kid, he’s a strong kid and he’s a hockey player.

“We like him a lot. He is a smart player. He is real strong down low, he doesn’t get knocked off the puck. He moves it really well. He is just one of those players that whenever he gets the puck on his stick, you don’t worry because you know he is going to make the right decision.

“He is a well rounded player. I think he can do things at both ends of the rink. I think we can get more out of him than he is doing at the junior level because he plays so much there. He plays 35 minutes a game and he is at times pacing himself.”

Washington also held the 28th choice in the first round on Friday night, but swapped the pick to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for the 41st pick in this year’s draft and the Sharks’ second-round choice in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Next year’s draft is much deeper than the 2007 draft, and the 50th choice in ’08 might produce a player as good as the 20th pick in 2007.

“We moved 28,” explains McPhee, “because we’re really confident that the guys we want are going to be there [when Washington chooses next] at 34. So far they are. To be able to pick up a second round pick for a real strong draft next year – because this is kind of a weak cluster right here – is something we had talked about and were hoping we could pull off, and we did.

“The bottom line is we wanted to see if we could add a couple picks for next year. We really felt that a couple guys that we like might be there at 34. We’ll get them there and we might get one at 41. This draft is going all over the place. The list is going all over the place and it will [continue]. There are guys who are 150th on the list who are going now. It’s one of those drafts. We thought it would go this way. There are no superstars at the top of the draft, but good players. The rest of the draft is anybody’s guess.”

McPhee came close to obtaining an NHLer for the 28th pick, but the deal ultimately fell through.

“We had an offer on the table right down to the 27th pick: our first for an NHL player,” he says. “The other team vacillated back and forth and at the end they couldn’t commit.

“We told everyone before the draft that our picks were available and we’ll talk about lots of things but no, we didn’t get anything done.”

More Alzner Quotes
On how he thinks he’ll do against NHL competition:
“I’m not too sure. I think after a couple of ice times to get my feet wet, see if I can hang with the guys – which I think I can – some of my strengths are I am able to make passes quick. I can make quick decisions and for the most part, good decisions. Once I get the chance to play with some high-end skill players that are open all the time for passes, maybe I’ll be better able to answer that question.”

On whether he sensed the Caps’ interest in him based on his pre-draft interview with them:
“I wasn’t sure. They caught me off guard at the end when they asked me to tell a joke and I didn’t think my joke was very good. I wasn’t sure, I thought maybe they were going to judge me on the joke. I thought it went well and I knew that there was a possibility. Whenever the teams come up that you are ranked around, your stomach starts to get a little bit antsy.”

On what he needs to work on before training camp in September:
“One thing I am sure if you asked all the kids around here is strength. I want to be stronger; I want to be able to hold my own in the corners. Also making my offensive decisions a little bit better. Knowing when to jump up in the rush, and when to shoot the puck on net and when to just put it down low. I really want to polish off my offensive game so I can become a more well rounded defenseman.

On his experience in the 2007 World Junior Championship:
“I went into it with an open mind. One thing I knew is that if I was going to get a chance to be on the team I knew I wasn’t going to get too much ice. After one of the games the coach came up to me and he apologized for not playing me. I told him, ‘You don’t need to apologize to me. I knew coming in here that I was going to have a small role.’ I told him, ‘I’m ready when you want to throw me in, but I am just as good a cheerleader as I like to think I am as a player.’ I play whatever role I am thrown into, and I used that time on the bench to watch some of the best Canadian players in the CHL and the college ranks so it was such a good learning experience for me.”

On his lack of nervousness:
“I love to talk. I don’t mind talking to anybody and everybody. I don’t think this makes me nervous. I have had to do it a couple times now. When I made World Juniors, those were the brightest lights I’ve ever seen in my life shining in my eyes. That kind of helped me get my feet into the waters there. I just love it. I like answering questions that people have. I have lots of questions to. I like to answer them.”
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