When the Montreal Canadiens signed free agent 28-year-old Karl Alzner to a five-year, $23.2 million contract, Marc Bergevin signaled to one and all Montreal’s defensive direction for the foreseeable future. Bucking the trend of fast, smart, puck moving defensive cores, Habs fans should get used to defensemen playing between the dots. This was Claude Julien’s approach in Boston, and will likely continue in Montreal. It has been described as a “defense through solid structures and systems.”
Habs to Watch in 2017-18: Karl Alzner
Alzner was drafted in the first round, fifth overall, by the Washington Capitals in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Until this year, he had spent all nine seasons of his NHL career with Washington. It seems part of the reason he signed with Montreal was the hope that the Canadiens are more of a contender than the Capitals. Given some of the reporting following Alzner’s departure, it will be interesting to see how Caps fan react when the Habs come to D.C. on October 7th.
For some, Alzner is an elite defenseman. While he won’t fill the score sheet, as LWOH’s Nic Hendrickson pointed out, Alzner, 28, has proven himself to be “…a very reliable top four defenseman for what has been one of the best teams in the league year in and year out.”
As Omar White suggests, “Alzner isn’t the defenceman that you notice. In fact, the best thing about his gameplay is that you rarely notice him at all. He does the little things to ensure that the other team doesn’t get a chance to score.
For others, Alzner is a “rich man’s Emelin.” On this view, the Canadiens overpaid to outbid other teams. Worse, they doubled-down on an outdated notion that defensemen should stick to playing in their own end. There is evidence Alzner has been on the decline in terms of offensive production since 2013. As LWOH’s Kyle Cushman points out, his advanced numbers and diminishing speed limit his utility. Even Alzner admitted he had slowed down. TSN broke down Alzner this way:
It is not clear where Alzner will play in the lineup. He can play a ton of minutes and so he is a lock for either the first or second pairing, on the left side. If he lines up next to Shea Weber, they would be the one of the best shut down defensive pairings in the league. It is also possible he will play alongside Jeff Petry or Jordie Benn on the second pairing to try to balance toughness, speed, and defensive acumen among the top four.
Most commentators believe Alzner is a smart player with good gap control and even better stick discipline. While his contract was expensive, he is no doubt an upgrade on Emelin and a good fit for Julien’s new defensive system. Ben Raby, Washington Post Express Reporter and host of Capitals Radio, thinks Habs fans will warm to Alzner.