For Karl Alzner to take the next step in his development - from hyped prospect to established NHL player - he may have to resort to tactics he isn’t used to.
Alzner was the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft, possesses a decorated amateur resume and saw action in 30 games for the Washington Capitals before his 21st birthday despite playing a role (defensive defenseman) that can take the longest to grow into.
He’s considered one of the top defensemen in his age bracket in the world and a key cog on the blue line in the organization’s future along with Mike Green and John Carlson. Still, making the Caps’ roster to begin this season is far from a sure thing for the gregarious kid from Burnaby, British Columbia.
“He’s just got to wow us,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You look at the seven [veteran defensemen] who have been here for the better part of the past two years - someone is going to have to really beat them out of a job.”
Problem is, Alzner’s style of play doesn’t ooze “wow.” He makes smart and simple plays, not flashy ones. Brian Pothier summed it up best: “If you didn’t notice him, that is a compliment.”
Boudreau conceded: “Yeah, that’s not his style. But we know Karl can play. Just like we know Jeff Schultz can play. These are tough decisions that [general manager George McPhee] and myself and the coaching staff are going to have to make. Our depth is really good.”
To that end, Alzner is determined to be a little more noticeable on the ice this season. Don’t expect any Green-esque end-to-end rushes or Scott Stevens-style open-ice hits, but that doesn’t mean Alzner isn’t ready to add a few more dimensions to his repertoire. Chief among them is a willingness to be more aggressive.
“It is hard to work on that in the summer, but I’ve been telling myself I want to do that more,” Alzner said. “I want to be a tough guy to play against.”
As Alzner continues to mature and gain NHL experience, his contributions at both ends should expand. For now, he must find a delicate balance of trying to do more to impress while remaining in a comfortable state.
“That kid, whether he is playing in the NHL or a pee-wee game, he is exactly the same,” Pothier said. “He’s not going to step outside his boundary, and he is really good at what he does. That’s how he’s going to make his mark on this league - just being a consistent, strong puck-moving, intelligent defenseman who kills penalties.”
Alzner turns 21 later this month and probably is years away from unfurling his full potential. That doesn’t mean a prospect of his stature doesn’t have to deal with high expectations.
On a lesser team, there is no question Alzner would find a regular spot in the lineup and likely gobble up 18 to 20 minutes a night while learning on the job. In this organization, he is in a fight to earn a spot - not only with the veterans from last year but with three other guys (Carlson, Tyler Sloan and Sean Collins) who also are of NHL quality.
“I don’t expect to make the team - I have to come in wanting to make the team,” Alzner said. “My expectations are it is going to come down to the wire, and it is going to be some hard decisions for the coaching staff like it was last year.
“I could always use a little bit of luck on my side with something opening for me. I don’t want to think anything is set in stone.”
If Alzner sounds a bit more candid than most professional athletes, it’s because he is. As a result, members of the media routinely flock to his stall in the dressing room.
He spent last season providing some of his thoughts and wit on a life in hockey with a pair of journalists whose audience is far from the stereotypical sports fan - Gemma Hooley and Chris Nelson of National Public Radio. Alzner and Brooks Laich conducted interviews with them on nearly a daily basis, and they also took recording devices home to provide audio diaries.
Hooley and Nelson produced short features from the material periodically throughout the season, and a 30-minute documentary called “Hockey Diaries: Ready to Play” will air nationally at the end of the month (Sept. 27 on WAMU 88.5 FM at 11 p.m. in the D.C. area). There also will be an hourlong version of the documentary available on the Internet.
“It was pretty cool,” Alzner said. “I can remember a lot of things that happened during the season more clearly because everything was documented. It was nice because it kind of slowed things down for me. I am very excited, and I know my mom is very excited as well. It will be interesting to see which clips they choose and what they left out. I’m sure it is cut well, so I don’t have to worry.”