Washington halved the number of restricted free agents it needs to sign on Wednesday when it announced that it had inked defenseman Karl Alzner to a four-year contract at an annual salary cap hit of $2.8 million per season.
“It’s a little bit of a sigh of relief,” says Alzner, speaking via the phone from his summer home in Calgary on Wednesday afternoon. “I’ve heard horror stories about how arbitration is and I’ve seen guys in the past that haven’t started training camp because negotiations are still going on. I didn’t really want to have to deal with something like that so I’m relieved that we were able to come to some common ground. It means that we were somewhat on the same page, and that’s a good thing.”
Alzner had arbitration rights and likely would have filed for arbitration Wednesday – the deadline for players filing for arbitration in the NHL – had he and the Capitals not agreed to terms earlier in the day.
“There’s not much else we could have done, right?” says Alzner. “I would imagine that we would have done that. I know you can keep negotiating right up until the actual case, so that could have happened too, but you never know what would have happened at that time. It’s no secret that I’m not a big numbers guy, so I don’t know if arbitration would have been necessarily been an awesome thing for me, but I’m happy I don’t have to deal with it.”
The contract covers Alzner’s three remaining restricted free agent seasons and the first of his unrestricted free agent campaigns. Alzner said he had been seeking at least a four-year deal from the start and was happy with the way the negotiations went.
“You see the trend with what the Capitals are doing things with all these two-year deals that they’ve signed with a bunch of guys,” notes Alzner. “So they came at us originally with that same mindset and trying to get two years done. And hopefully – as long as I kept playing all right – that would lead into a longer deal with the unrestricted years. But your entry level is three years and my next deal was two, so I was kind of hoping for something that was a little more long term with a little more stability.
“I guess the ‘pie in the sky’ would be a three-year deal, which works out best for me if I’m selfish, because then I’m an unrestricted player at that point. But the more years the better, that’s probably the way most guys look at it. Especially when you have a family or you want to have a family, you want to be able to stick around. So four years was something we came up with right away. We thought we’d try three or four, and we were pretty sure that they’d say they would rather go two or four. They agreed with us that we could make four years work. It was pretty much in our minds from the start, and we’re fortunate that they ended up coming toward us.”
The 24-year-old defenseman is heading into his sixth NHL season and this is his third contract as a pro. Alzner made his NHL debut in November, 2008 and has been in the NHL continuously since the start of the 2010-11 season. He has averaged better than 20 minutes per game in each of those seasons, playing in 212 consecutive games in the process.
Not surprisingly, Alzner takes pride in his durability and even works on it, as much as one can work on such things.
“One of the things we always talk about in the summer with my trainer here is making sure you’re what we like to call ‘bulletproof,’” notes Alzner. “That means targeting areas that guys normally have problems with like the hips, the groins, the shoulders and trying to make sure I’m as strong as possible in all of those areas.
“I know how much it sucks to sit out and miss a game. I had to do it one time my first year when I missed a game in Buffalo. Since then, I don’t think I’ve had to because of injury. That’s something I take a lot of pride in, even when you are injured or sick to find a way to battle through that and help the team. I like to see guys play as many games as possible. I was always a big fan of the fact that Cal Ripken played as many games in a row as he did. That was really, really cool to me. If I could continue with that, that would be great. But weird things happen on the ice. You never really know, so I don’t want to put too much stock in it.”
Alzner and teammate John Carlson are two of only five NHL defensemen who have played in all 212 games over the last three seasons.
In 263 career games, Alzner has totaled five goals and 44 points to go along with 77 penalty minutes. His value lies in his ability to defend, to shoulder and log difficult minutes and as one of the team’s go-to guys on the penalty kill. Alzner led all Washington blueliners in average shorthanded ice time per game in 2011-12 and was second only to Carlson on the team in that department last season.
Alzner seemed to grow more acclimated to coach Adam Oates’ structure as the season wore on, and he started jumping into the play a bit more late in the season and into the playoffs. Although defense will always be at the forefront of his mind and his game, he believes he has more to offer the Caps offensively over the next four seasons.
“I sure hope so,” Alzner declares. “I think that it is there; I know that it is there. At times I have felt it and felt the confidence to do it and have seen the results of me doing it. But I guess it’s just so much in my nature to always think defensively and think that that’s my sole duty on the team and to leave it up to the other guys to create the offense. I think that not having to worry about the numbers side of the game and just to worry more about playing and playing well makes it a little easier to go out there and evolve.
“I think toward the end of last season and into the playoffs there, I was definitely shooting the puck a heck of a lot more than I normally do and jumping up into the rush a little bit more. I think it’s just one of those things that the more I do it and the more I have the opportunity to do it, the more comfortable I’m going to feel and the less panicky I’m going to feel with the puck when I’m in those situations.
“If it was Carly who was in some of positions that I was in towards the end of the season, he probably would have had four goals. I’m still trying to shake some of the cobwebs out. I used to be able to do it in junior and then I’ve kind of forgotten about it the last four or five years. I’m trying to get back into that mindset of being an offensive contributor to the team as well. With this contract, it definitely carries a little more responsibility. I can’t just sit back and play defense. I’ve got to be a little bit more well-rounded.”
Three years ago this week, the Caps signed defenseman Jeff Schultz to a similar deal, a four-year pact at an annual cap hit of $2.75 million. The NHL’s salary cap going into that 2010-11 season was $59.4 million, so Alzner’s deal represents an even smaller percentage of Washington’s total salary cap than Schultz’s pact did. The salary cap for the upcoming 2013-14 season has been established at $64.3 million.
With Alzner’s signing on Wednesday, the Caps have approximately $5 million worth of salary cap space. Marcus Johansson is the team’s lone remaining unsigned restricted free agent.