Capitals' Alzner Enjoys Being On the Defensive

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Back home in Burnaby, B.C., Karl Alzner plays a FIFA soccer PlayStation2 game the same way he plays defense. While his friends' virtual teams rack up five or more goals a game, Alzner's give up two. Maybe three, if he's having a rough day.

Alzner doesn't like the run-and-gun style, preferring to apply patient and methodical strategies to whatever he's doing.

"It's the way I am in everyday life as well," the Washington Capitals' 2007 first-round draft pick (fifth overall) said. "I like low-scoring games. I like knowing I can frustrate the other team's forwards, throw them off a little bit."

A reliable, stay-at-home defenseman, Alzner is the antithesis of the flashy offensive firepower with which the Capitals are identified. But it's the calmness and confidence that Alzner, 19, exudes each time he clears a puck from his zone that Washington's fond of -- the characteristics that it hopes will help make him a top-pairing NHL defenseman.

While Alzner's performance this week at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington and at training camp in August will determine if he's ready for the Capitals or if he needs to spend time at minor league Hershey, the uncertainty of veteran Brian Pothier's return from the effects of concussions has widened his window of opportunity.

"Not to put too much pressure on Karl, but he had a lot more poise back there" than a year ago in his first development camp, Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "You can tell he's played in a lot of important situations in front of a lot of people. . . . I don't think his goal is to be great here. His goal is beyond this. His goal is to be great in training camp and be great making the team."

Alzner rarely makes any unnecessary movement on the ice. He skates fluidly, unlike many defensemen who use a choppier stride to increase speed. His skating style allowed him to conserve energy when he would play 30-35 minutes a game in his final season with the Calgary Hitmen.

He's not known for bone-crushing open-ice hits, because he would rather outsmart an opponent and leave them wondering where the puck went. And his favorite defensemen? That would be Detroit's six-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom and four-time Stanley Cup champion Scott Niedermayer, two players who use their sticks like surgeons use scalpels, carefully removing the puck. Both players possess the offensive upside that the gregarious Alzner hopes to add to his repertoire.

"Joining a rush is the hardest thing for me," he said. "I hate to be out of position and I hate to give a team an opportunity. I'm confident when I'm back taking care of my zone and it's in the back of my mind to always cover my position. But when I get opportunities, I'm starting to do bits and pieces to keep making myself better on both ends."

In juniors this past season, Alzner recorded 36 points (seven goals, 29 assists) and was a plus-26 in 60 games for the Hitmen, numbers that helped him earn both the Western Hockey League's player and defenseman of the year awards. Steady, with a natural positioning instinct from the first time he played with the Hitmen as a 15-year-old, Alzner rarely gave Calgary general manager and former coach Kelly Kisio reason to worry.

"We knew our end of the ice was probably going to take care of itself," Kisio said adding that he did occasionally ask his workhorse defenseman to take a chance in the opposite zone.

"I think he has some offensive abilities," Kisio said. "He's just so concerned with his end of the ice that he wouldn't risk it for the offense. I wish he would have taken more chances while he was here, but once we understood his mentality and thought process we knew he'd make the best decision out there that we could ask him to."

Alzner doesn't want to be considered a one-dimensional player, and during his stint this year as the captain of Canada's world junior team he ventured out of the defensive end whenever a low-risk situation presented itself. He also threw a few strong hip checks in the neutral zone and stole the puck and did a 360-degree spin past a forechecker so he could carry the puck out rather than make a usual breakout pass.

But Alzner's not trying to earn the label of an offensive defenseman just yet. "I want to keep working on that second part of my game," he said. "But I don't think I'll ever like it as much as I like keeping pucks away from my net."

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