There may not be a more honest and insightful player in the NHL than Washington Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner.
His honesty has even gotten him into a bit of trouble this season, when he admitted it was tough for players to get excited for a game against the Florida Panthers at BankAtlantic Center in early February -- even if the two teams were in a fight for first place in the Southeast Division.
It is also the way Alzner plays on the ice. He's a cerebral guy, more likely to beat an elite forward with his brain than his brawn (though he's continuing to work on the latter). Through strong skating, positional awareness and an extra dose of belief in his ability, Alzner has built off an impressive first full season in the NHL in 2010-11 with an even better campaign this year.
'Carlzner' and beyond
In his first full NHL season, Washington Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner partnered with fellow young defenseman John Carlson to become Bruce Boudreau's most trusted pairing, but both saw a drop-off in their form when split up.
"We're used to each other," Carlson said. "As we were playing together, we were both amping our game up. Maybe it was that we were close friends and we were pushing each other and making each other and ourselves better. I think we did that all year and we just have to keep doing it."
The biggest step forward for Alzner this season has been his ability to play well regardless of who is skating next to him. Carlson went through a "sophomore slump," as his work in the defensive end slipped from his rookie campaign.
Alzner continued to be a trusted force in his own end, even when new coach Dale Hunter broke up the "Carlzner" duo, as it is fondly called in Washington. They are back together now during the postseason, and both have played well against the Boston Bruins in a series that will be decided on Wednesday night in a Game 7 at TD Garden.
"It helps to work together, obviously. We feel confident back there together," Alzner said. "I didn't change my game this year, regardless of who I was playing with. I feel like, if anything, I feel better with the puck and able to take an extra second to make a play. Last year it was just get the puck and get it out. When me and [Carlson] were on the same page last year, that was all we were thinking about was get the puck and move it. When we were split up, our partners were maybe expecting something different and maybe we weren't giving them that. With that extra bit of confidence I have now, it is easier to play with anybody."
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"You just try to feel more and more comfortable. What you see now is probably what I'm going to be for my entire career. I'm probably not going to be a whole lot more," Alzner said. "I just want to be more consistent. I battled some consistency issues, I think right after Christmas for a few weeks. That's not fun. The thing that I want to see and I'm going to work on is playing the same way every game. I don't want to have any dips or games where I'm turning the puck over. That frustrates me quite a bit."
Finding that type on self-assessment from any NHL player is pretty rare, but Alzner is 24 years old, has captained his country to a gold medal and been a top-five NHL draft pick. There's no doubting that honesty and sincerity from Alzner. It is genuine.
There's also no doubt he deserves more recognition for the work he has done for the Capitals this season. Washington will be at TD Garden in Boston on Wednesday night to try and knock out the defending Stanley Cup champions in a winner-take-all Game 7 of this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
The Capitals have frustrated the high-scoring Bruins and extended this series further than most pundits expected. Boston's top offensive stars have been stifled for long stretches, and Alzner has played a large role in that development.
"A lot of guys get to be first star or part of the three stars of the game, or different accolades like that," Washington forward Jason Chimera said. "Karl doesn't get to have that kind of recognition much, but he gets a lot of recognition from us as teammates, and I think that's what matters to him. He doesn't really care about stats too much. He cares about keeping the puck out of the net. He's a great guy to have here, and hopefully they can keep him around here for a long, long time."
He plays on a team that employs Mike Green, Dennis Wideman and John Carlson, but Alzner has been Washington's most reliable defenseman this season. He's also been one of the League's best at preventing goals.
That's not a strength that often generates a lot of praise during the day-to-day grind of a season. It isn't something that's going to show up on the back of Alzner's hockey cards.
"There's different ways to measure a defenseman, and it isn't always points," Washington forward Mike Knuble said. "He's one of those guys that if at the end of the night you didn't notice him, then he did a great job. He's not making mistakes, and I think the coaching staff and his teammates appreciate a guy like that who is steady and gives you consistent effort and consistent results."
On a macro level, once a bigger sample size is collected, is where Alzner shines. His stats are not goals and assists, but rather the ones on the website Behind The Net like goals against per 60 minutes at even strength and quality of competition.
Alzner finished the regular season seventh among defensemen who played at least 60 games in Behind the Net's Quality of Competition rating at even strength. The list is a who's who of top defensive defensemen in the League -- the top six were Josh Gorges, Brent Seabrook, Dion Phanuef, Zdeno Chara and the New York Rangers' duo of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh.
Despite playing against some of the toughest competition in the NHL on a consistent basis, Alzner was on the ice for 2.02 goals per 60 minutes at even strength. Among the top 15 defensemen in QoC, only McDonagh and St. Louis' Carlo Colaiacovo had a lower total. So not only does Alzner play against the best players in the League, he keeps them off the score sheet.
Alzner also had the eighth-lowest offensive zone start percentage among defensemen who played at least 60 games, another indicator of how much the Capitals rely on him at the defensive end. If there is a key draw in front of the Washington goaltender, there's a good chance Alzner will be out there for it.
If there has been a singular event that best describes the trust placed in Alzner this season, it came in Game 5 of this series. The Capitals faced a three-on-four situation for nearly a full two minutes (103 seconds). Alzner was out there, along with forwards Brooks Laich and Jay Beagle, for the entire kill.
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The three-on-four started before the end of the second period and carried over into the third. Hunter didn't hesitate to have those three guys out there for all of it.
"[Alzner] is years above his age, playing-wise," Chimera said. "He's very mature and he does a lot of good plays. It isn't usually flashy, and he's the guy that you might not notice on the scoreboard or the box score. If you're looking at a game and saying, 'Who had a big impact?' a lot of people won't always say Karl Alzner, but his teammates will say Karl Alzner. He's below the radar, but you can't put enough emphasis on a guy like that."
Despite only being 24, Alzner has packed a lot into his young career. He was a dominant player for the Calgary Hitmen in the Western Hockey League, which helped him become an elite draft prospect and a two-time gold medal winner for Canada at the World Junior Championship, including one as the captain.
Washington made him the No. 5 pick in the 2007 NHL Draft, and he was named the top defenseman in the CHL the year after that. Expectations for a player with that resume are immense, but defensive defensemen often take longer to develop.
Still, Alzner played 30 games in the NHL in his first professional season and often didn't look out of place. The next year that number decreased to 21, and there was a twinge of impatience from a fan base accustomed to seeing high draft picks like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom rocket to stardom.
He took a big step forward in his development with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League at the end of that second season, and became a permanent fixture in the Washington lineup last season, in year three.
Even if Alzner doesn't add to his offensive game, he will be an incredibly valuable asset for a long time if he can continue this level of defensive performance. After all of the rule changes before the start of the 2005-06 season, there was a rush around the NHL to find mobile, offensive-oriented defensemen. While the old guard -- guys who were big, physical and defended with their hands and their sticks -- was quickly pushed out of the League, a new generation of defensive defensemen has risen to prominence.
This group is sound positionally, blocks shots and plays a physical brand of hockey -- without being penalized for it. As general managers quickly found out a few years ago, finding that specific guy -- someone like Gorges, Rob Scuderi or Anton Volchenkov -- is not easy to do, and those who fill that need have been handsomely rewarded because of it.
Alzner has one more year on his contract at a paltry $1.285 million, and then he will still be a restricted free agent. He continues to work on being more of a physical presence, though he did end up in the middle of a mini-controversy during this series when he jumped into a post-whistle scrum and then made a "crying baby" gesture to his old pal from growing up in Vancouver, Milan Lucic.
There is no question if Alzner is able to add a little more edge to his array of defensive skills, he will be considered as valuable as guys like Gorges and Volchenkov, and likely compensated as such.
And as Chimera noted, even if Alzner hasn't earned the recognition nationally, he has in the Washington dressing room, and the Capitals will certainly like him to keep frustrating top offensive players for years to come.
"For me, with the year-end meetings that I've had and hearing about some of the other defensemen who are really hard to play against, one thing they all have in common or I always seem to hear is I have to be more gritty in front of the net and in the corners," Alzner said. "You have to let guys know that you're there. The players are too good to let them skate around and try to beat them with your positioning defensively. You have to somehow get in their heads a little bit and have them thinking about you being there. You also have to do it within the rules. I think that's really important. If you can be that guy without taking a lot of penalties, it is a good thing to have.
"I've been told that since juniors. When you play a certain way for so long, it is tough to switch to that, but I think it will help my game a lot."