Karl Alzner hadn’t finished three shifts at Madison Square Garden late last month, and he had already been on the ice for two goals by the New York Rangers.
It was a tough night for the rookie defenseman, but the prized Washington Capitals prospect has bounced back in a big way since - even if his immediate future with the team could be in doubt.
“It shows a lot if you can bounce back, and that’s what I’ve tried to do,” Alzner said. “If I have a bad game, then the next one has to be my best one.”
While he has certainly earned a spot on the Caps’ roster, Alzner’s contract could keep him off it when others are ready to return from injuries.
He can make up to $1.675 million this season, and because of a loophole in the collective bargaining agreement, there is no built-in cushion to cover the $800,000 that comes from bonuses. The Caps began the season with little salary cap space but have been able to put Alzner on the roster because of all their injuries.
When someone goes on long-term injured reserve, that player’s salary can be replaced. From Alexander Semin to Chris Clark to Sergei Fedorov, someone with a hefty contract has been on LTIR for as long as Alzner has been with the Caps.
“I’ve thought about it the last few days,” Alzner said. “I am nervous every time I come to the rink because I know my time could be dwindling here. I’m still hoping something can get done because although Hershey is fun, I’d much rather be here.”
Fedorov, however, could be back as soon as Friday. One short-term solution would be to put Tom Poti, who is out with a groin injury, on LTIR retroactively to Dec. 21, but he could be ready to play within days of Fedorov’s return.
Alzner, the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft, has played 19 games for the Caps this season, and it hasn’t taken him long to prove he is ready for NHL duty. As a defensive-minded defenseman, Alzner isn’t going to have impressive statistics, but he does have a goal and four points (the same totals as Tyler Sloan, now with Hershey, had in 24 games and Shaone Morrisonn has in 35).
He is also a plus-six, which is the same as Poti and two better than Jeff Schultz. What has made Alzner stand out is his mature play and ability to work well with others. On the ice, he rarely looks like a 20-year-old with so little NHL experience.
“You look at our [15-4] record with him in the lineup,” Boudreau said. “You look at the guys he makes better, and I think that is a big part of it. I think good players make guys around them better. Karl is still young, and he’s going to get a lot better, but from what I’ve seen he’s done a really good job.”
One player who has benefited from Alzner’s presence is fellow defenseman Milan Jurcina. He has seen a significant increase in ice time as Alzner’s partner and has played the best hockey of his season when paired with the rookie.
Alzner’s playing time is also a good indicator of his importance to the team. He is averaging 20:37 a game, which is not only third in the NHL among rookie defensemen but also third among members of the Caps’ blue line corps behind only Poti and Mike Green.
“He’s very composed back there, and he’s been playing against top two lines every night,” Morrisonn said. “It is a difficult for a young defenseman to come in and be so positionally sound and make the little plays. You’re not going to get the accolades for it, but it is the little things he does that we as defensemen notice.”
If there are no more injuries between now and the time Fedorov and Poti return - a player on LTIR must miss at least 10 games and 24 days - the Caps either would have to make a trade or put a player on waivers to open up enough cap space to keep Alzner for the rest of the season.
“With respect to the salary cap and the roster, you go game by game because things change,” general manager George McPhee said. “I don’t want [Alzner] or anyone else hanging on every word I say about what could happen. We’ll just see how things go, and we’ll make decisions as we move along.”