Capitals get a lift from Karl Alzner and John Carlson, among the NHL's bright, young defensemen

By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 12:02 AM

There's one thing the Washington Capitals' youngest pair of defensemen know about what happened in overtime against Buffalo four days ago: The play that resulted in the Sabres' game-winning goal didn't go as either would have hoped.

Karl Alzner, who came off the bench just as Washington turned over the puck in the neutral zone, wished he could have gotten back in the play faster and perhaps tripped up Sabres sniper Thomas Vanek. Meanwhile, John Carlson felt that Vanek was going to shoot much sooner, so he didn't cling to him closely. Vanek pulled the puck past Carlson and goaltender Braden Holtby for a shot on a wide-open net and the deciding tally.

Accepting that mistakes happen has been one of the most difficult challenges for Carlson, 20, and Alzner, 22, who have both been thrust into major roles for Washington in their first full NHL seasons.

They are just two of several young defensemen across the league this season who are playing important and significant minutes and learning to adapt on the fly to the game at its highest level. To name a few, there's Drew Doughty in Los Angeles, just 20, playing in his third season and exhibiting poise not often found in older players; rookie P.K. Subban (21) in Montreal, who along with Carlson is expected to contend for this year's Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie; and Buffalo's Tyler Myers (20), who is averaging more than 23 minutes a game in his second season.

For most of these players, who have grown accustomed to success as they assimilated rapidly from juniors to the American Hockey League to the NHL, it can be a challenge to not overanalyze when every play isn't a model of perfection.

If there's anyone who knows about the unavoidable ups and downs of being a young defenseman, it's the Sabres' 6-foot-8 Myers, who leads Buffalo into Verizon Center on Wednesday for a rematch against the Capitals.

Myers won the 2010 Calder Trophy after a stellar campaign of 48 points and plus-13 rating, but his sophomore season got off to a rocky start. Through the first 13 games this year, Myers carried a minus-12 rating that didn't measure up to his defense-first priorities.

"After last year, I put a lot of pressure on myself coming into this one - too much pressure," Myers said in a phone interview. In the past five games he appears to have regained his footing and is a plus-3 with four points.

"I think the biggest thing for me, and a lot of guys, is to focus on keeping the game simple. The first 10 games this year, I was trying to do too much, taking unnecessary risks that I didn't need to take. I'm starting to figure out that less is sometimes more, and I try to focus on that."

In an effort to keep Carlson and Alzner - who often skated together on the AHL's Hershey Bears - relaxed and focused, Coach Bruce Boudreau has for the most part kept the pair intact. He has also taken on the task of helping the young blue-liners maintain perspective on the pressure of their new roles as much as teaching them the proper systems and habits.

"It's important that they understand what we're doing; that they communicate with themselves on the ice but also that they don't try to do anything over the top," Boudreau said. "Our job to develop guys like this is when they make mistakes - and they will - you can't just put them on the bench. You have to keep putting them out there, explain what they've done and trust they'll get it."

That requires different approaches for each, Boudreau said. Where stay-at-home Alzner might hesitate to trust his instincts at times, instinctual and offensive-minded Carlson occasionally needs to rein himself in.

Through 15 games, both Alzner and Carlson have both made their share of outstanding plays along with miscues they hope to gradually erase as they progress. They're also beginning to accept the task of becoming a complete NHL defenseman isn't something that happens instantly, most of the time.

"I'm usually pretty hard on myself," said Alzner, who has a plus-2 rating and two points while averaging more than 18 minutes per game. "I want to play well every single night, and at times, especially my first two years, I just didn't feel like I was doing everything I could. It's hard to not see the results that you're used to seeing."

Said Carlson, who averages nearly 22 minutes per game and is a plus-6 with nine points: "Everyone goes through streaks here and there, but as a young guy, people look at it a little more closely and think: 'Maybe he's not ready for this league.' But I don't think it's that simple. We're just young, getting acclimated to the game and lifestyle. It takes time."

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