When July 1 hit, the significance was lost on Karl Alzner at first. He was understandably preoccupied, coming off a sports hernia surgery and his son having been born just a few weeks earlier. But his phone started buzzing with texts from friends asking, “Hey, did you see what happened?” Alzner then remembered it was the first day of NHL free agency.
“I was curious to see where some of the defensemen went,” Alzner said. “I always like to see what the market is doing.”
If Alzner is still unsigned on July 1 of next year, his phone could be buzzing for a different reason. The Washington Capitals defenseman is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time next summer, and while the team would like to re-sign him, it also will have to consider restricted free agents Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Nate Schmidt, Dmitry Orlov, Brett Connolly, Philipp Grubauer and Stanislav Galiev. A handful of prospects, including Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd, Christian Djoos and Nathan Walker, will also be restricted free agents. T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik join Alzner as other Capitals who will become unrestricted free agents next summer.
If that sounds like a long list, it is. It’s also made more complicated by a looming expansion draft next summer with the addition of the Las Vegas franchise. Washington will be able to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender for that draft. Assuming blue-liners Matt Niskanen and John Carlson are among the players the Capitals don’t expose, that leaves General Manager Brian MacLellan with a choice of Alzner and Orlov. So, looking significantly ahead, is re-signing Alzner a priority?
“Depending on the value, it would be, yes,” MacLellan said. “We can protect three defensemen, so there’s going to be a decision to be made here at some point. I mean, we have guys that are pretty good.”
One of the big unknowns of the process is how teams will handle pending unrestricted free agents with the expansion draft scheduled before July 1. Those players will be eligible to be drafted, but it’s unclear if Las Vegas will want to draft many of them because there’s an uncertainty in keeping them when free agency arrives. Would Washington be able to come to a handshake agreement and then hold off on an extension until after the expansion draft, so a player doesn’t have to be included among its protected players?
“I think that’d be a risky move,” MacLellan said. “I don’t know that anybody’s going to try that. There’s probably a window, I mean, but I don’t know that you can really wait until then. … I don’t think there’s a guarantee. I don’t think you can come to an agreement and say, ‘We’ll sign you after that,’ you know? I don’t anticipate that would work.”
Alzner, the Capitals’ iron man, owns the team’s franchise record for consecutive games played with 458, which is still active. Under Coach Barry Trotz, Washington considers Alzner to be one of the team’s most improved players, and last season he scored four goals and 17 assists while averaging a career-high 21:23 of ice time. After injuries hit the Capitals’ blue line throughout the season, Alzner and Niskanen were the team’s top defense pair, tasked with the most challenging defensive assignments. Alzner was second to Niskanen in shorthanded time on ice, blocking a team-high 49 shots when the Capitals on the penalty kill. Alzner’s 207 blocked shots ranked third in the NHL.
Even with it being a contract year, Alzner said his goal is “to give everyone the exact same season” as he had last year and the year before.
“Guys put so much thought and they get so worried about their contract years because you want to go out there and put up numbers and you want to play great and all that,” he said. “But I guess I’m at the point now in my career — and I think people around the league, they understand — that what I’m going to bring to the table, I’m not going to go out there and give you 40 points or even 30 points. I’m going to go out there and try to play consistent, try to play every night and play hard against other team’s top lines, if that’s asked of me. So, that’s the thing I have to focus on. I don’t have to worry about changing my game to add a bunch of things to it.”
Said MacLellan: “I think it’s harder now to value defensive defensemen because they’re not recognized as well as defensemen that contribute offensively. How do you put the value on that, and does the open market do the same thing for defensive defensemen?”
Alzner’s last contract came as a restricted free agent, a four-year deal that paid him $2.8 million per season. With him holding the leverage for the first time with unrestricted status, he stands to make a considerable raise and intends to carefully consider his options.
“I need to be smart with it,” Alzner said. “I’m not just going to jump at the first thing that comes across the table, you know? We need to think about it, talk about it with [wife] Mandy and our families and just see what makes sense because, yeah, the league can push you out pretty fast. So, you’ve got to think about number one when you come to your contracts. With the way that I’ve had my dealings go in the past, I haven’t had any control ever, so I might as well enjoy that while I can.”
>>> Alzner said there was some nervousness about how he was healing from sports hernia surgery and a partial groin tear was going entering training camp. At first, it was smooth sailing, but as he started to intensify his leg workouts about three weeks before the start of training camp, he noticed he wasn’t recovering fast enough.
A thought that he said occurred to him: “I don’t have any power right now, so I don’t know how I’m going to keep up with these guys when they’re skating.”
He said he noticed a change after the second exhibition game he played, which finally put him at ease.
“There was no pain the next day after skating,” Alzner said. “My stride was fuller. I was getting more power. I don’t know exactly what it was, maybe just things in the groin stopped breaking down and they just kind of got solid. I don’t know. I don’t know how it works. But all of a sudden, I just started feeling better. Now, I’m not having any pain at all.”