-- Last season was the first full one in the NHL for Washington Capitals
defensemen Karl Alzner
and John Carlson
Not only did they excel, they proved to be a vital pairing for the injury-depleted Washington defense and far exceeded expectations. As they prepare for an encore, it is possible the Capitals will rely on them less -- even if they continue to improve.
"I think they had a great year. We used them in a lot of key situations, a lot of pressure situations, and they passed with flying colors," Washington assistant coach Bob Woods said. "We're going to expect more out of them and they are going to expect more out of themselves, but I also think we have some support on the back end, so hopefully that will take a little pressure off them. I think they're going to be fine."
Alzner and Carlson eventually became coach Bruce Boudreau
's most trusted defense pairing last season, a remarkable achievement for two guys who were 22 and 20 years old, respectively, at the start of the campaign.
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It was also a development born of necessity. The team's top two defensemen from the previous three seasons, Tom Poti
and Mike Green
, missed large chunks of time with injuries. Dennis Wideman
was added at the trade deadline, but his year was cut short by injury.
Poti's status for this season remains in doubt, but free agent Roman Hamrlik
is expected to take his place, while Wideman and Green are healthy. This is likely to be the deepest and most talented defense corps in Washington in at least a quarter-century.
If everyone can stay healthy, it should relieve some of the burden placed on the precocious pair.
"It helps a lot," Carlson said of adding Hamrlik and a healthy Wideman. "They'll calm us down on the bench, and I think they'll be a good presence in the room. It certainly can't hurt our team when we have great players like that."
Added Woods: "I don't think there will be as much pressure on them. We had a lot of injuries to key guys, especially in the playoffs, which really forced a lot more on them. They handled it really well. A lot of it will be looking at who we're playing against and the type of matchups we want, but I still see those guys playing in a lot of key situations."
Carlson was a late first-round pick in 2008, but it did not take long for him to prove that was several choices too low. He quickly established himself as one of the top prospects on defense with a great 2008-09 season, and followed it up with an even better 2009-10 campaign that included a gold-medal winning goal at the world junior championships and a second Calder Cup title with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League.
He finished his first full NHL season with 7 goals and 37 points, while playing more total minutes for the team than anyone save for No. 1 goaltender Michal Neuvirth
. When injuries felled Green, Poti and Wideman, he assumed the role of No. 1 defenseman and proved he can log heavy minutes.
Carlson played more than 26 minutes in five of the team's nine playoff games. He has Norris Trophy-candidate potential, but playing on a team with Green and Wideman -- two other offensive-minded defensemen who are also right-handed shots -- is likely to suppress his statistics.
Finding room on the power play for all three of them -- plus Alex Ovechkin
, who has spent much of Boudreau era manning one of the points with the man advantage -- could be tricky for the coach.
"I'm not worried about that right now. That stuff will work itself out," Carlson said. "It is good to have too much of something when it is good. It is not up to me anyway. I'll just do what I have to do and what happens will happen.
"I just think [Alzner and I] have to keep building on it. I think we both maybe played more than we envisioned at the start of the year, but that's a good thing. We just have to stick to the same thing, and let us mature on our own and not to do too much now that we had a good year and just kind of find our place again."
Alzner was the fifth pick in the 2007 draft, but he has not rocketed to future stardom the way Carlson has. He is more of a defensive defenseman, and they can take longer to develop than players of Carlson's ilk.
He reached the NHL as a 20-year-old early in the 2008-09 season, but Alzner spend that campaign and the next shuttling back and forth between Hershey and Washington. While other top-five picks may quickly establish roles at the NHL level, Alzner had to wait and develop at the AHL level.
"It was a lot of patience, because [my professional career] didn't start out the way I wanted it to," Alzner said. "I kind of felt like I had to go back to the drawing board and figure out what I had to change with my game so I could make it at this level. I think it was more about being calm, and I feel like I've said it 100 times, but confidence. I'd come up and just make the most basic of plays and you can't do that. There are guys open and you've got to find them. You've got to make that play."
Ironically, one of the best things to happen to Alzner was when Carlson, and not he, was called up late in the 2009-10 season. While Carlson got his first extended taste of the NHL, Alzner had to slide into Carlson's position with Hershey.
That meant more time on the power play and more responsibilities than just being maybe the best defensive defenseman in the league.
"It helped me tons," Alzner said. "Playing on the power play was different for me, because the guys we had on our PP unit there were pretty good -- pretty skilled guys. They hold you to a certain standard. They expected me to make nice passes. It was nice because I got to play in a lot of new positions. Of course I wished I was up here at the end of that year, but it was probably a blessing in disguise because it really helped me round out my game."
Woods said there is no reason to think Alzner and Carlson won't be paired together to start this season. Green is likely to play with Hamrlik, which would put Jeff Schultz
and Wideman together as well.
When Alzner and Carlson were getting their first NHL auditions, it was Green and Schultz who made up Washington's go-to defense pairing.
"We just kind of looked at them and said, ‘We'd like to be those guys,'" Alzner said. "You can't play exactly like them, but that was the kind of situation we wanted to be in -- to play in a lot of key situations and help the team win. I think we're in a good situation now and we could play together for a while."