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Free agent Karl Alzner set to get 'first taste' of the NHL's business side

Free agent Karl Alzner set to get 'first taste' of the NHL's business side

Some players look at free agency as an exciting opportunity. Others view it as a nerve-racking proposition fraught with uncertainty.

Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner definitely considers himself among the latter group.

“At the end of every season, even when I was up for another contract, I always felt really comfortable,” the 28-year-old said recently. “Some people look at free agency and go, ‘Yeah, this is really awesome. I get to go see what I can get.’”

“For other people,” he continued, “it’s unknown, and they don’t like unknown. I’m curious [to see] how it’s all going to happen. But I don’t like the feeling of not having something.”

The Capitals are all Alzner has known as a professional hockey player. He was drafted fifth overall by the team in 2007, came up through Washington's minor league system and has been a rock on the Caps' blue line for the past eight seasons.

Now he’s slated to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time.   

“It’s my first real taste of what the [business side of] the NHL is like,” said Alzner, who, following the expiration of his entry level deal in 2011, re-upped twice, both times as a restricted free agent.

Just like Washington's far-too-early playoff exit, the possibility of switching teams hasn’t really sunk in yet.    

“We consider this home,” he said.

The ‘we’ is himself, his wife Mandy and children Stella and Anson.

“Whenever we say we’re going home or we’re filling out any paperwork, this is home,” he said, referring to Arlington, Va. “We feel so comfortable here. We spent the entire summer here last year. We could spend another summer here. We’ve met a lot of great people and we love it here. This is one of a handful of places around the league where if you spend your whole career here, you could easily stay here. And that, without a doubt, crossed our mind when we bought our house here and had kids. But a lot of it’s not really in my hands. I guess it kind of is in my hands, but they make the decisions upstairs.”

The durable, steady top-4 D-man also made this much clear: he doesn't want the negotiation to be all about money, at least from his end. He earned $2.8 million in each of the last three seasons.

“There’s definitely curiosity, but for me there’s lots of things that are more important than dollars in my life,” he said. “So the most interesting thing will be to see how talks go with the team here first.”

On the ice, this was a challenging year for Alzner, who had offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia and partially torn groin muscle. The recovery turned out to be trickier than expected for a player who, by his own admission, wasn’t a speed demon on skates to begin with. Still, he suited up for all 82 games—again—while matching up against top competition and playing 19:47 per game on average.

In the playoffs, Alzner encountered another injury. He suffered a broken right hand while blocking a shot in Game 1 vs. Toronto. He played hurt in Game 2 but ended up missing the next six contests.

“Just a harmless shot block,” he lamented. “Probably an unnecessary shot block.”

As for the decision makers upstairs—GM Brian MacLellan and Co.—they’ve got to sort through a lot, including Alzner's future, as they contemplate a pathway forward for a team that dominated the regular season but, once again, failed to get out of the second round of the playoffs.

There are five unrestricted free agents on the current roster. There are also six restricted free agents that need new deals. And, of course, there’s a finite amount of space under a salary cap that’s expected to remain relatively flat. 

Then there’s THE question facing Caps management: is it time for massive changes to the core, of which Alzner has been a part since 2010?

“I don’t know how I’ll fit into the makeup here if things get blown up,” he said. “But, you know, we’ll find out. …It’s definitely possible. You can only get to the second round so many times before you have to think that something needs to be changed. But I’m not an architect of a team. I don’t know how you do that exactly. I thought we were winning this year…but we still didn’t. So you have to go back to the drawing board, I think.”

Alzner didn’t know what the future held as he walked out of Kettler Capitals Iceplex last week following another breakdown day that arrived sooner than anyone had envisioned. But he was certain of this much: another golden opportunity had been allowed to slip.

“It’s definitely the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had because this was the most realistic chance of winning that we’ve had,” he said. “This is a pretty good window that we had here and, unfortunately, it’s not there anymore.”

MORE CAPITALS: How can the Caps balance pressure with joy?

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5 fun facts you may not have known about new Capital Ilya Kovalchuk

5 fun facts you may not have known about new Capital Ilya Kovalchuk

On Sunday, the Capitals traded for Ilya Kovalchuk making him the newest player on the team and perhaps the last piece to what Brian MacLellan is hoping will be a championship roster.

Kovalchuk should be a familiar name for most hockey fans considering he was a superstar player in his prime, but here are five fun facts you may not know about the Capitals’ newest forward.

Reirden and Kovalchuk were teammates in Atlanta

Before he was an NHL coach, Reirden had a journeyman’s NHL career with stops in Edmonton, St. Louis, Atlanta and Phoenix. His one season in Atlanta came in 2001-02, which was Kovalchuk’s rookie season.

"He was very underrated I think,” Kovalchuk said of Reirden. “He had big shots, scored some goals, but I think he was more a stay-home defenseman, but great off the ice. We spent a lot of time together on the road and he teach me some English, I teach him some Russian. I think he knows more than I expect, Russian words.”

It may have only been one season, but Kovalchuk and Reirden hit it off. Reirden credits the very little Russian he knows to the time he spent with Kovalchuk that year. He even had him and fellow teammate, Dany Heatley, over for Thanksgiving that year.

“[Kovalchuk] was the one that we first started on the word exchange,” Reirden said. “Obviously now his English is perfect and my Russian still is not perfect. That was when I was realized, I was a sixth, seventh defenseman on the Atlanta Thrashers and our team wasn't very good. We got to Thanksgiving time and I didn't feel like enough time was being spent with those players to help them get ready to play in the NHL. So I remember Thanksgiving having both of them over to my house and my wife cooking a Thanksgiving meal for them. So that was the first time we really started to connect.”

Kovalchuk is on the cap for four different teams

As part of the trade that brought him to Washington, Montreal agreed to retain half of Kovalchuk’s salary. That means he is counting $350,000 against the cap for both teams. In addition, Kovalchuk is still on the books in Los Angeles for $6.25 million for both this year and next after his contract was terminated. And, though it feels like a long time ago at this point, Kovalchuk continues to count against the cap for the New Jersey Devils. That massive 15-year contract that Kovalchuk signed in 2010 will continue to cost the Devils $250,000 in cap recapture penalty through the 2024-25 season.

Kovalchuk is an Olympic gold medalist

Alex Ovechkin has a Cup, but Kovalchuk has something that Ovechkin does not and that is an Olympic gold medal. Since the NHL chose not to participate in the 2018 Olympics, Ovechkin was not able to suit up for the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) team. Kovalchuk at that time was playing in the KHL so he was free to represent his country, or at least he was free to play for a team of a bunch of people from the same country but who definitely weren't representing that country...or something like that. The OAR team went on to win gold, the first for Russia since the country participated as the Unified Team in 1992 with all the countries that made up the Soviet Union.

Kovalchuk has two different-colored eyes

Move over, Max Scherzer. You’re not the only athlete with different color eyes.

Heterochromia iridium is the condition in which one eye is a different color from the other. Scherzer has it and so does Kovalchuk.

Many of you out there are trying to Google a picture of Kovalchuk right now or are wondering how you never noticed this before. The reasons is because Kovalchuk’s heterochromia is much more subtle than Scherzer’s. Instead of having two completely different eye colors like Scherzer has with one brown and one blue, Kovalchuk’s eyes are light brown and dark brown. Most people wouldn’t notice unless you stood close to him or got a very up-close picture.

The Caps are one of two teams with two of the top-five active goal scorers on the roster

Ovechkin obviously has the most goals among all active players with 701. In Kovalchuk, the Caps added the No. 4 active scorer with 442 career NHL goals. Only one other team in the league can boast having two of the top five and, of course, that team is the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Sidney Crosby is third among active players with 459 goals and he is now teammates with Patrick Marleau, who was acquired in a deadline trade. With 561 goals, Marleau is second only to Ovechkin.

That’s a lot of goals between those four players. Ovechkin and Kovalchuk have a total of 1,143 goals with Crosby and Marleau combining for 1,020.

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Not enough grit and not enough power from Capitals in Winnipeg

Not enough grit and not enough power from Capitals in Winnipeg

The Capitals were shutout for the first time since Dec. 16 as they failed to build off their two-game win streak. Connor Hellebuyck was tough to beat, but did the Caps do enough to get to him?

Check out a recap of the game here.

Observations from the loss

This team has to play physically to win

If you want to know the importance of physical play, compare this game to the last few the Caps have played. The Caps did not dictate the physical play in this game nearly as much as they had in their last two wins and it was very noticeable. You have to take the "hit totals" with a grain of salt because it varies from building to building, but in this game the Caps out-hit Winnipeg 17-16. On Tuesday, Washington led in hits 25-17. In Tuesday's win, the Caps used the physical play to dictate the game as they jumped out to a 3-0 lead. They just did not do that at all on Thursday.

Make life difficult for the goalie

Give all the credit in the world to Hellebuyck, he was great. He was on his game and seeing the puck really well. When that happens, the Caps have got to make life more difficult for him. It felt like there was not enough traffic in front of Hellebuyck and not enough battling to win rebounds. It was going to take an ugly goal to beat him and it looked like the Caps could not deliver that. You can't always win with skill, sometimes you have to get dirty.

Turning point

Down 1-0 late in the second period, Washington got its first power play of the game when Neal Pionk was called for hooking Alex Ovechkin. Just three seconds after Pionk's penalty expired, Anthony Bitetto was caught hooking Ilya Kovalchuk giving the Caps almost four continuous minutes of power play time. Washington could not take advantage and suddenly when the team headed into the locker room it was clear Hellebuyck was going to be tough to beat.

Play of the game

Hellebuyck was great, but the save of the night came from Ilya Samsonov when he denied Jack Roslovic with the toe.

Stat of the game

Hellebuyck's performance overshadowed what Samsonov was able to do, but he had a solid night overall as well.

Quote of the game

Considering all the talent on this roster, it is always staggering when the Caps get shut out. It happens to everyone, the league is really good and really tough, but it is still surprising. The players feel the same way.

Fan predictions

You got the one from Dmitry Kulikov, but that was it.

The dream was over 23 seconds into the game as Patrik Laine took a puck off the heel and was forced to leave the game.

He got really close from the Ovechkin spot on the power play.

They have to score to do that.

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