Always Steady Alzner Makes Big Strides for Capitals

Karl Alzner quietly has become one of the league's top defensemen (Dan4th / flickr)
Karl Alzner quietly has become one of the league’s top defensemen (Dan4th / flickr)

On a team full of highly skilled players with MVP-type capabilities in the midst of a potential record-setting season that has already had its share of amazing individual and team performances, one player for the Washington Capitals often gets overlooked. But, in a pure hockey sense, who on the roster has been better or more consistent than Karl Alzner this season?

Although he frequently gets matched up against top lines in critical situations, Alzner and his partner Matt Niskanen, who also has been tremendous this year, are largely considered to be the Caps’ No. 2 defensive pairing. Despite injuries to the top tandem of Brooks Orpik, who has been out since November, and former ironman John Carlson, who recently missed 12 games, the Capitals have allowed the fewest goals in the league thus far at 114.

Certainly the impressive play of less-experienced blueliners such as Nate Schmidt, Dmitry Orlov and Taylor Chorney, each of whom has had a consistent presence in the lineup, along with call-ups such as Aaron Ness and Connor Carrick, has played a large part in Washington’s defensive success. And, of course, you can’t discount the stellar play of potential Vezina- and Hart-candidate Braden Holtby.

The next-man-up mentality has served the Caps well, but the play of Alzner and Niskanen – particularly Alzner – has been spectacularly understated, at least among the hockey media.

“People {around the league} are recognizing how steady he is, how durable he is and that he really can play any game you want – a big heavy game down low, or if you want a high-skill game he can handle speed,” head coach Barry Trotz said of Alzner recently.

While the media may not be promoting Alzner, the numbers speak for themselves. He consistently sees more than 21 minutes of ice time and five times has eclipsed the 24-minute mark – including two contests in which he has been on the ice for better than 26 minutes. For the season he is a sparkling plus-16, and has posted a plus-11 mark while Orpik has been sidelined and put up a plus-5 showing during Carlson’s absence.

Brooks Orpik
Alzner has assumed a bigger role for the Capitals in the absence of Brooks Orpik (Tom Turk/THW)

Alzner’s play is getting noticed by the people who count most: his coach and others in similar positions around the league. More important, though, he’s looking more and more like someone who might have a chance to earn a spot on the Team Canada roster for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey.

“I think he’s starting to get appreciated around the league,” said Trotz, who will be part of the Team Canada staff this summer. “I know that other coaches have noticed it. With my involvement with the Hockey Canada group, his name is popping up. That’s a good thing. He’s on the watch list and that’s because of his play.”

Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment on Alzner’s resume is his remarkable durability despite a willingness to sacrifice his body for the good of the team. When Carlson went down, Alzner passed his longtime teammate in consecutive games played and ultimately set the club ironman record with his 423rd straight appearance against Philadelphia Jan. 27. His mark stands at 427 after Sunday’s contest against the Flyers.

“It’s probably the only franchise record I’d have a shot at getting,” Alzner said right before surpassing Bobby Carpenter’s team mark. “That’s kind of neat for me, you know? If I never really accomplish anything in my career, at least I have this.”

Added Trotz, speaking about the streak: “He’s a big, thick guy. There are probably some {good} genetics there and good luck. It is pretty impressive, especially with what is demanded of defensemen, not only on our team, but throughout the league.”

And even though it’s a given that Alzner will be in the lineup every night, his coaches also know that he can be a go-to guy when the game is on the line. Whether it’s with the goalie pulled in the final minutes of a one-goal contest or for a key penalty kill, he rarely is caught out of position and excels at blocking shots, ranking fourth in the league with 128 before Sunday’s contest.

“You look at how many shots Karl blocks, and he kills penalties and plays against top guys. He’s taken some absolute rockets to the feet, hands, arms, legs and what have you,” Trotz said. “There was a time a few weeks ago when it was tape and guts keeping him going. He got through that and sort of healed up going through that process. It’s pretty impressive.

Karl Alzner and Capitals Taking it to Another Level

Karl Alzner
Long known for being a conservative d-man, Alzner’s game has grown (Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE)

What’s also impressive is how Alzner has adapted his game to help the team win. With a season and a half playing in the Trotz system under his belt, he’s contributing much more to the Caps offensively by moving the puck with a great deal of confidence in all three zones and jumping into the rush on a more consistent basis. He’s also playing a tougher, more physical brand of hockey even though he says he’s “really not that kind of person.” For him it all comes down to winning.

The overall improvement is reflected in the numbers: Alzner added added two assists in the 3-2 win Sunday against the Flyers, giving him 3-14-17 in 51 games, just four points behind his career-best 2014-15 season with 32 games remaining. On top of that, he’s on pace to record the most hits of his career.

“His stick detail and position is excellent and he has a really good sense of a awareness as a pure defender,” Trotz said. “He’s added a great deal to his offensive game, and he’s an excellent skater. With all of those things combined he’s turning into an underrated top-end defenseman. He’s one of the guys that if you look back from last year he’s grown a tremendous amount. On and off the ice, he’s a leader in the room and always wants to get better. When you look at those attributes, he’s got them all. “

It makes sense that Alzner hasn’t gotten a ton of publicity over the years. Up to this point he’s been a prototypical, stay-at-home, conservative defenseman. He never wowed anyone with his speed or flashy playmaking like a Mike Green. He never intimidated opponents with bone-crunching hits like a Brooks Orpik. And he never scored a gold-medal winning goal for his country like a John Carlson.

No, he didn’t do any of that. But what he did is something that every hockey team needs. He showed up every day ready to play and played a responsible game, placing winning above everything else. He took pride in being in position, allowing his more offensively gifted fellow defensemen to roam the ice and create some scoring opportunities. And most of all he focused on keeping the puck out of the net.
None of those attributes will win you a Norris Trophy or earn you a spot on an all-star team. But combine those qualities with the more physical and better all-around game he has displayed this year and you have something special. That’s where Alzner is at this point in his career.

Maybe with the approach of the World Cup and the need for Hockey Canada to put together a true hockey “team” for this summer’s tournament Alzner is about to get his due. After all, as Herb Brooks once said before another big international tournament, “I’m not looking for the best players … I’m looking for the the right ones.”

From a coaching perspective, though, when you are talking about Karl Alzner at least, being one of the right players also makes you one of the best.