Stepping off the ice at Washington Capitals development camp, coach Bruce Boudreau entered his media scrum to a question about how great it was to have restricted free agent defenseman Karl Alzner signed.
“Oh, he signed?” Boudreau said. “Good stuff.”
That was the feeling all around Friday after the team’s top young shutdown defenseman officially re-upped with a two-year deal worth $2.57 million. With just a $1.285 million cap hit, fans were at the same time surprised and impressed at the bargain the Caps got, but all parties were satisfied with the result — given the situation.
“It’s a big relief. I’m happy that it’s done and I don’t have to worry about it — that’s the main thing,” Alzner said in an afternoon conference call with reporters. “You don’t need any outside distractions or anything like that coming into training camp or during the regular season. So I’m happy that I’m faced now with a contract for two years and just go out there and worry about winning.”
Ultimately, there was no doubt that Alzner was returning to Washington for next season. The 22-year-old called it a “98-percent chance” and admitted only a little worry as time passed without a deal.
The low cap hit and salary was a result of a lack of leverage on the part of Alzner and his agent, J.P. Barry.
“A player in Karl’s situation doesn’t have arbitration rights,” Barry said. “[Restricted free agency] is a completely different marketplace.”
Because Alzner didn’t have arbitration rights, the Caps had him in a tough spot. Their qualifying offer of $826,875 (for one year) was the starting point in negotiations, Barry said, and the rest was a matter of agreeing on a value for a second year.
Barry and Caps assistant general manager Don Fishman eventually settled on $1.75 million for that second year. They split the money up so that Alzner will make $1.3 million this season and $1.27 million in 2012-13. That still seems like a steal — and Alzner admitted he may have left a bit of money on the table. But this was better than settling for the qualifying offer
“There was no other offer out there, so that was all I had,” he said. “So it was either take it or leave it.”
Alzner could have just accepted the qualifying offer and played for arbitration next summer, as Barry said most players in this situation would have done. But this keeps the two sides from having the same discussion next year.
What’s genuinely hard to quantify is Alzner’s value. As a stay-at-home defenseman, he logged 20 minutes a game this past season and quickly established himself as the Caps’ go-to guy against opponents’ top lines. But Hershey Bears coach Mark French, who has seen Alzner’s development from the AHL to now, cited a Pat LaFontaine quote to describe the defenseman: “Make the unnoticeable noticeable.”
“He does that. I think the more fans watch and the more coaches watch him, you appreciate the little things that he does. And you really come to see what his value is,” French said. “He doesn’t show up in the numbers, you don’t see him jumping into the play and contributing on the power play. But what he brings to the table is probably just as important.”
Alzner played in all 82 regular-season games for the Caps last year and managed just two goals and 10 assists.
“I think he’s never going to be a real offensive guy because he takes his responsibilities on defense so seriously,” Boudreau said. “But he can make the first pass; he can shoot the puck.”
Alzner was the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft, despite not having much offensive upside. His steady presence on the blue line, especially for his age, has gotten him to this point.
“When you don’t worry about a guy when he’s on the ice that’s a good thing,” Caps assistant and former Bears coach Bob Woods said. “And Karl is just one of those guys. When he’s out there you can take a deep breath and know that he’s probably going to make the right decisions. … For him to be as young as he is to be that type of player, it’s a positive.”
Seeing as how Alzner doesn’t turn 23 until September and fellow top-pair defenseman John Carlson is still 21, the Caps expect to have a bright future on the blue line.
But that’s another reason Alzner took a little less this time — because if he improves, he could be set for a major pay day. In two years when this deal is up, he’ll again be a restricted free agent (per the current collective bargaining agreement). But as Barry said, if Alzner continues this pace of improvement, “that time he’ll be in a whole different class.”
“I think a lot of guys, their ambition is to be able to play really well and then be rewarded for that by winning a Stanley Cup and by being able to sign a bigger ticket than your one before,” Alzner said. “It’s not the main focus, obviously, but it is something that you think about.
“This is that one contract that you maybe have to take something that isn’t your first thing that you wanted. Hopefully, I play good these next few years and the next contract is something that is really something to see. I guess it’s up to me now.”