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.”
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