Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden took a calculated risk last season when, upon his arrival, he immediately separated the Caps’ top defensive pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner, matching veteran Brooks Orpik with Carlson, and Matt Niskanen with Alzner.
A little more than a year later, Carlson is leading all Caps defensemen in goals (4), assists (15) and ice time (24:22), while Alzner is quietly gaining consideration for Team Canada for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
“Sometimes you get too comfortable,” said Alzner, who on Saturday played in his 401st consecutive game for the Caps. “Me and Carly were comfortable going out there and playing good, but not always getting to that next level.
“Now that we’ve switched things up, we both seem to have gotten to another level. Nisky and Orpy have helped both of our games.”
In the case of Alzner, there have been two subtle yet significant changes to his game this season. He is jumping into the rush far more often, sometimes even creating plays from below the offensive goal line. And he is playing a stronger physical game, especially along the walls, where has delivered dozens of glass-rattling body checks.
“He’s added a little more offense to his game,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “I think his details on defending and game management is outstanding, and I think he’s playing with a little more edge. He’s got guys that are top-level hockey players getting upset with how hard he‘s playing them, and that’s a good sign for us.”
Last season Alzner set a career high in goals with five and matched his career high in points with 21. Through 25 games this season Alzner is on pace for seven goals and 27 points.
“Jumping up in the rush was something I had to talk myself into,” Alzner said. “I’m not stupid. I know when to jump in most of the time and I know when it’s time to say, ‘OK, nothing’s happening and come back.’ I may not be the fastest guy, but I know I’ve got enough to get back. That was something I had to tell myself.”
While Caps fans might find it unusual to see Alzner creating offense from below the hash marks, they may be equally surprised to see him crushing bodies along the boards.
Alzner’s 38 hits this season (1.5 per game) have him on pace to finish with the exact number of hits he had last season, when he set a career high with 120, well above his previous average of 82 hits.
“I’ve never been a physical player my entire life and I try to learn from other guys,” Alzner said. “Brooks (Orpik) is the best example for me, seeing when he decides to go stick on puck and when he decides to go full body.
“I mean, I’m not going to be crushing guys through the middle of the ice, but I’m going to try to finish in the corner and I think that’s something that can really take my game to another level because it’s been kind of standing still for a little bit.”
Reirden hinted that someday in the future Carlson and Alzner may be reunited as a top pairing and he’s encouraged that by then, both players will be playing at an even higher level.
“It’s been a little over a year working with (Alzner) and to see the amount of growth in him is pretty remarkable, actually,” Reirden said. “It goes into him trying to re-develop himself as a player.
“He’s extremely coachable. Some players don’t accept information quite as easily. He’s tried every possible thing that I’ve thrown at him and he seems to continue to grow right in front of our eyes.
“With the confidence he’s playing with now, he’s probably the guy, along with Nate Schmidt, who has really stepped up his game with Brooks Orpik being out. I’ve really liked his physical play and his ability to add offensively. He’s also starting to take on a bit of a leadership role.”
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