There are times in a game when Karl Alzner knows he made a mistake. It’s likely no one else in the arena notices — not even on his own bench.
But it bothers him because even at 23, Alzner isn’t a defenseman who beats himself.
“He’s very responsible. He makes the right plays 95 percent of the time,” Washington Capitals assistant coach Bob Woods said. “He’s one of those reliable, steady guys that’s not going to do anything flashy, but he’s going to do things right and do them very well.”
The Caps quickly have grown accustomed to Alzner as their top shutdown defenseman, a former fifth overall pick who has exceeded expectations. But as the kid from Burnaby, British Columbia, chugs along, a comparison to the greatest defenseman in franchise history beckons.
“Between those two guys, I see the simplicity to their game. You notice Karl, obviously, because the game’s played at such a pace. And you notice Langway because at the time, his size and his mammoth reach,” said Craig Laughlin, the Capitals‘ color analyst who played parts of seven seasons with Langway in Montreal and Washington. “But what I see in similarities is you never see them cough the puck up. Both Alzner and Langway make the good pass. When in doubt, they throw it off the glass. There’s never big miscues by either of them.”
Fans of yesteryear might consider the comparison sacrilege and will undoubtedly point to Langway’s 202 career points in Washington and his intimidating physical style. Alzner may never become a feared offensive player or a player who’s going to crush opponents into the glass, but it’s sometimes easy to forget his game still is developing.
While doing that, Alzner is very rarely — if ever — the goat. PA announcer Wes Johnson has likened the Alzner-John Carlson pairing to a superhero duo. Carlson provides the bulk of the offense and jumps up into the play, but Alzner is the safety valve that prevents plays from going awry.
“That’s just my nature is I’m a defensive guy. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing with Derian Hatcher — just somebody who’s safe themselves,” Alzner said. “I’m always going to be that guy that’s going to be back.”
“I didn’t gamble. It was one of those things that I always played on the safe side. I don’t want to say I let the game come to me, but I could make the puck go where I wanted it to go,” Langway said. “It’s all about angles. If you angle things the way you want it, my teammates knew what I was doing. If it got into a situation where I did something different, usually the puck was in the net.”
That’s Alzner’s job, too — to keep the puck out of the Caps’ net. But in not scoring much - just three goals and 19 assists in 133 NHL games — it’s difficult for some to appreciate him as a top-of-the-line defenseman.
“People from the naked eye who don’t know too much about hockey might think otherwise,” Carlson said. “People that study it and know it, they know what type of player he is and how crucial he is to our game.”
In some ways, Alzner is ahead of Langway. While Langway needed a few years to tone down the penalties (he had 120 PIM in 1980-81 with the Canadiens), Alzner has just 34 penalty minutes … in his career.
“That shows me about Alzner that he is so positionally sound,” Laughlin said. “You take penalties as a defenseman when you are out of position - you don’t move your feet or you’re not in the right lane or you’re not blocking a shot or there’s some miscue.”
That’s never been Alzner, dating to his days in junior with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. All the hype back then about the dependable kid who was a big-time NHL prospect, teammate Jeff Schultz said, has been justified.
“I’d love to be able to live up to those expectations,” he said, “and I’m without a doubt going to try.”
To get even closer, Alzner talked up adding more offense to his repertoire. It wouldn’t be a totally new trick, as he managed 47 points during one junior season. He’s also been telling Carlson to be ready to get back while he jumps up into the play more often.
“That’s just something that I want to try a little bit more. I’ve been working on handling the puck more and making better plays and just making better reads up ice,” Alzner said. “You don’t have to be the most skilled guy, but if you can read the play well then you’re going to get those chances.”
Adding offense, and maybe some more bite, would go a long way toward not only getting his No. 27 in the Verizon Center rafters alongside Langway’s No. 5 but delivering a Stanley Cup banner, too. It’s hard for a team to make a deep playoff run without a guy like Alzner, who is counted on not to make critical mistakes.
“When you win championships,” he said. “You understand how good he is when you win key games and you’re a big part of it.”
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