By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 20, 2009
CHICAGO, Sept. 19 -- Karl Alzner is reminded of the daunting challenge he faces each time he walks into the dressing room at the Washington Capitals' Arlington practice facility. It's right there along the wall to the right -- the locker stalls of the seven defensemen who helped the team advance to within a game of the Eastern Conference finals last season.
Alzner wants to have a fulltime spot along that wall come Oct. 1, when the Capitals open the season in Boston. But, barring a trade, injury or the unlikely decision by management to keep eight defensemen, he knows that will only happen if he outperforms one of the incumbents over the next two weeks.
"This summer I started thinking about all the successful defensemen and what they do that I don't," said Alzner, who will turn 21 on Thursday. "I thought about guys like [Nashville's] Shea Weber and even [Washington's] John Erskine. I know the coaches like that Erskine is physical and a force out there. I want to be that guy if I have to."
Alzner's commitment to adding some grit to his game was apparent in the Capitals' preseason opener in Buffalo on Thursday. He finished his checks, harassed Sabres forwards in front of the net and in the corners and even tried to pick a fight after fellow prospect John Carlson was hit with his head down.
As Carlson went to retrieve his helmet, which had been dislodged by the impact, Alzner was chasing after Sabres winger Daniel Paille.
"Their tough guy stepped in, so it was quickly squashed," Alzner said. "But I want to let their guys know that I saw what happened. I want them to know what I'm thinking."
Bob Woods, the Capitals' assistant in charge of defense and Alzner's coach in the minor leagues last season, liked what was on his star pupil's mind.
"That's a step," Woods said, referring to Alzner's attempt to engage Paille. "That was an opportunity to prove that he improved in that area, and he did it. He's a kid that wants it, wants to be here, and he's going to make it tough on everyone else. What he would have done [in that situation] last season, I don't know. But now he knows that has to be part of his game."
Alzner, who amassed only two penalty minutes in 30 games with the Capitals last season, conceded that being abrasive doesn't come naturally to him.
"My game has always been to fly under the radar and just get the job done and go about it quietly," he said. "But I can't really do that anymore. I have to make an impression and be seen. It will be good for me in the long run, because I'll expand my game and be a better player."
Woods added: "It's about being aggressive and battling in front of the net. And sometimes when in battle you do take penalties and make someone upset. That's the way he has to play."
Asked earlier this week what Alzner had to do in order to secure a spot on the Capitals' opening night roster, Coach Bruce Boudreau said the young defenseman needs to "wow" his staff and management. Boudreau then likened Alzner's struggle to beat out a veteran to a heavyweight title fight that goes to the judges, saying, "When you come to the 15th round, you either knock him out or you go to decision. And if you go to decision, usually the champion gets the call."
Alzner came close to making the Capitals out of training camp as a first-year professional last fall, but management ultimately decided that the native of Burnaby, British Columbia -- like Mike Green and Jeff Schultz before him -- could benefit from a season in the American Hockey League.
Alzner's salary -- $1.675 million including bonuses -- also contributed to the decision because of the Capitals' proximity to the salary cap ceiling. Taking his bonuses into account this season, Alzner could count more against the cap than veterans Milan Jurcina, Erskine and Jeff Schultz.
As a rookie, Alzner was recalled by the Capitals four times, making him the only defenseman from the 2007 draft class to play in the NHL. But he did not make an appearance with Washington after Feb. 15. Instead, Alzner bided his time -- and honed his skills -- while he helped the Hershey Bears capture their 10th AHL title.
Hoisting the Calder Cup after the Bears won the finals against Manitoba isn't an experience Alzner will soon forget.
But this fall he wants something of his own: a permanent locker at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
"You never forget the guys on your team when you win a championship," he said. "But I really want to be in Washington, badly. That's my goal, that's my dream. I'm happy with my time in Hershey; it was good and successful. But I want to see what I can do with my career at the next level."