Karl Alzner found his inspiration during the playoffs this past spring, familiarizing himself with how New York Islanders center John Tavares would use his body to fend off the opposition. Alzner admired how difficult Tavares was to check, so the Washington Capitals defenseman made better body positioning his project for the offseason.
He’d take baby steps in battle drills with forward Jay Beagle during their summer training in Calgary, working on getting his body in between the puck and Beagle. That, he hoped, would allow him to control the puck better as he skated out of the defensive zone and generate more offense this season.
“I think that’s how some of the best players get better, by taking bits and pieces,” Alzner said. “I’d like to become a good player. I’m going to try and learn from the best.”
After the departure ofveteran Mike Green in free agency, Alzner is now the Capitals’ longest-tenured defenseman, playing in his sixth full season and eighth overall with the team. But despite his veteran standing in Washington, Alzner is still searching for ways to evolve and improve.
“If you stand still, you’re gone,” Alzner said. “It’s just the way it is. You can’t just sit around and try and play games without improving. Unless you have loads and loads of skill, it’s impossible to do, so I’m trying to get better every single time.”
Assistant coach Todd Reirden, who works primarily with the defensemen, said Alzner, 27, was arguably the team’s most improved player last season. In a system that gives defensemen the freedom to be more aggressive in joining the offensive attack, Alzner had career highs in goals (5) and points (21).
Reirden said Alzner’s ability to defend rushes was “night and day,” which contributed to the team going from allowing 33.5 shots against per game in the 2013-14 season to 28.9 last season. Through seven games this year, the Capitals average the fewest shots allowed per game in the NHL with 24.1, and Alzner has the lowest even-strength shots against average per 60 minutes (18.68) among the team’s defensemen, according to war-on-ice.com.
Coming into this season, Alzner told Reirden he wanted to be more physical and to use his skating ability to move with the puck more. Alzner and Reirden also discussed using the net as a shield as Alzner cleared the puck out of the defensive zone. Alzner’s been more composed with the puck than he was last season, which has allowed him to spend less time in the defensive zone.
During the summer, Alzner and Beagle would stay longer on the ice so Alzner could practice getting the puck away from Beagle. After a session on the ice, Alzner focused on building strength, so that once he would get body positioning in a game, he’d be able to separate himself.
“It’s just something little that not many people notice,” Beagle said. “He’s definitely always a guy that likes to improve, and he’s always improving himself and working on the little things, which is huge. . . . He’s never satisfied.”
In the past, when a puck got dumped into the corner and Alzner was racing a player to get it, Alzner said he used to go in stick first and try to poke it past his opponent, sometimes sending it to a different player. Now, instead of going in with his stick, Alzner is working on getting his body in front of the other player or at least bumping him before he gets to the puck.
“The next step is just being able to do something after I get body position,” Alzner said. “That’s what I need to work on more now. Once I can get in front of a guy or push him off a puck, then getting control of the puck or making a play with it or skating it, that’s kind of where I’m stuck right now. I need to do something more.
“I think that might come with knocking a little bit more of the rust off and feeling more game speed and all that. It’s working so far.”
Reirden uses video to do individual work with all his defensemen, and he found Alzner especially appreciated feedback. Before a game, Reirden would suggest tweaks, each time explaining why it would be beneficial to him. At the end, he’d suggest they work on it in practice the next day. Alzner usually couldn’t wait that long.
“He tries it the first shift of the game, and it works,” Reirden said. “He immediately tries something he thinks he can get better with. It’s awesome. That’s the thing that’s uncanny about him. Whenever you come at him from a different angle, he’s excited about learning about it.”