COLUMBUS -- For years, Karl Alzner and John Carlson were almost inseparable on the ice.
Fans in Washington referred to them as "Carlzner," and they evolved together from top prospects with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League to the Washington Capitals' top defensive pairing. When coach Barry Trotz and his assistant in charge of defensemen, Todd Reirden, came to Washington this offseason, they decided it was time for a change.
Alzner and Carlson haven't taken a regular shift together in a single game this season. And yet each is playing much better than he has in recent seasons. Part of that is because of their new partners, veterans Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, who signed with the Capitals as free agents this summer.
"I think it was important that we separate those two," Trotz said. "When you get into having a partner for so long, and they both grew up together, they're both roughly the same age, I think you can miss some things. Having a guy like Brooks or [Niskanen], coming from another organization, being a little bit older and maybe a bit more experience, can really benefit the two younger guys who have played together a long time."
Trotz paired the 25-year-old Carlson with Orpik and the 26-year-old Alzner with Niskanen, and all four defensemen have appeared in each of the Capitals' 47 games. Reirden, Niskanen and Opik all came to Washington after being with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who the Capitals will face Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, SN1) at Verizon Center.
The Capitals signed Niskanen and Orpik to contracts worth a total of nearly $68 million. Their objective was clear: Give Alzner, Carlson and Mike Green more support.
"We've added a couple of guys that changed the makeup of our group, and it's been fun to learn from them," Carlson said. "They've had a lot of success in some other places. Especially Brooks, he's been through everything and won [the Stanley Cup]. You just try to take what you can from them, and it has been working out great."
Carlson is tied for fourth among defensemen with 35 points, and is second with 28 at even strength. His Corsi for percentage is above 50 percent for the first time since 2010-11 after dipping to a career-low 46.9 percent last season.
Carlson's puck possession numbers are even better without Orpik, though it is a small sample size. Advanced statistics have shown weaknesses in Orpik's game for several seasons now, and because of that there was plenty of criticism directed at the Capitals after they gave him a five-year, $27.5 million contract.
It is hard to say that Carlson hasn't improved because of Orpik's presence, and some of that money given to him and Niskanen was for their ability to mentor Washington's two young defensemen.
"You just know as a veteran guy the younger guys' eyeballs are always going to be on you," Orpik said. "You just have to be consistent in your preparation and the way you practice. I don't think earlier in my career I valued practice as much as I should have. I think you can really set an example that way.
"We played just a little bit together at the Olympics last year, so I knew a little about [Carlson]. It takes time. You can communicate as much as you want, but you have to get games under your belt together. I think after about the 20-game mark we started to really feel comfortable together."
Alzner is also having the best offensive season of his career, and like Carlson is also back on the positive side of 50 percent in Corsi for percentage for the first time in four seasons.
In 47 games, Alzner has 11 points, including a career-high three goals, putting him on pace to easily surpass his previous best of 18 points.
"I think with Karl you could see he played more of a safer game," Trotz said. "We're trying to get him to play not as safe and just make good decisions and get pucks to the net. You're seeing that offensively."
Alzner has always been a defense-first guy. He put up big offensive numbers in the Western Hockey League, but he saw his path to the NHL through his work at the defensive end and has concentrated on trying to become a shut-down defenseman since his days in the AHL.
Defense - WSH
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 8 | PTS: 11
SOG: 42 | +/-: 7
Expanding the willingness to use his entire skill set has been a focus this season.
"This year, having Todd here has brought my game to another level," Alzner said. "He's really asking more of me. More with the puck, away from the puck. Watching [Niskanen] and Brooks play, I'm learning so much from them and admire some of the things that they do. I know deep down I can do them, but I just have to go out there and try them."
Adding Niskanen and Orpik has given the Capitals the deepest collection of defensemen they've had since Alex Ovechkin arrived 10 years ago. Trotz and Reirden have been a clear upgrade for the defensemen from the previous coaching staff.
And Alzner and Carlson are getting older. They're still young relative to the rest of the League at that position, but each is closing in on 400 games of NHL experience.
"I think the biggest part is there's not as much pressure on the two of them," goaltender Braden Holtby said. "In the past few seasons, they've had to play against the top players on every team, every shift and playing big minutes. It's tough to gain confidence when you're always playing the best because they made good plays and sometimes they beat you.
"Now there's more depth and it is spread out. If you look at John's 5-on-5 point total, he's able to dominate teams offensively and still have enough energy to do well against top players."
Orpik added: "They've played a lot of games at such a young age. They have a lot experience for that age. They are two guys that I think have room to get a lot better than they already they are. That's encouraging for them and the organization."