One of the bigger Montreal Canadiens talking points over the summer was the signing of unrestricted free-agent defenceman Karl Alzner to a five-year contract with a $4.625M cap hit. For some, Alzner was the best defenceman available. For others, Alzner was a giant red flag. Regardless, he is now a Hab and part of the second pairing along with Jeff Petry, a role that he seems well suited for.
The primary concern that Alzner raises is his very limited offensive production, as evidenced in the chart above. Is $4.625 million per season too much to pay for an average second-pairing defenceman with minimal offensive production?
CapFriendly lists the closest comparables to Alzner’s contract as those signed by Jason Demers, Anton Stralman, and Andy Greene. Here’s a quick look at their contracts and the seasons immediately preceding their long-term signings.
As you can see, the contracts are fairly close in monetary value, but where Alzner stands out among this cohort is through his physicality statistics: hits and blocks. Although Alzner’s plus/minus was outstanding, a significant portion of this can be attributed to playing with the offensive juggernauts that were the 2016-17 Washington Capitals. Finally, relative possession figures place Alzner’s very limited offensive contribution on full-force display. These numbers, like the HERO chart presented earlier, hint at a defensively-reliable yet offensively-limited second-pairing defenceman.
In an effort to learn more about the Canadiens’ new big-ticket defender, I asked our SB Nation sister site, Japers’ Rink, for their impressions, since they were the ones who were able to watch every game of his NHL career thus far.
Eyes on the Prize: The advanced stats are not very kind to Alzner, but what does the eye test say? How was Alzner deployed by the Capitals, and how did he perform?
Japers’ Rink: He was deployed as a stay-at-home defender with limited puck skills, and he performed accordingly. If you like a guy that is usually in position and will get in front of pucks, you'll like him. If you want a guy to make a poised pass or be reliable for more than high-off-the-glass play, you'll be left wanting.
He was used like a trusty steed, a reliable old dog that can eat up more than three minutes per game on the PK, play against the opponent's top line, and get deployed in his own defensive zone when needed. He is your prototypical dinosaur defenseman. Not very fast, not very dynamic, but good in his own end.
EOTP: What happened at the end of the year and in the playoffs when Schmidt and Shattenkirk passed him on the depth chart?
JR: Trotz is a loyal guy, especially to his veterans, and especially to someone like Alzner, who set Washington's iron man record for most consecutive games played. But everyone in Washington knew it: Alzner's feet were too slow to hang with Toronto or Pittsburgh. Shattenkirk and Schmidt are better skaters. It took awhile, but the Caps coaching apparently found the value in defencemen that play in the offensive zone.
EOTP: What was the general perception of Alzner going to free agency this summer? Were fans happy or sad to see him go? Was there a feeling that he could be easily replaced from within?
JR: Fans were sad to see him go because he's a wonderful guy and was justly beloved in Washington. But the reality of the business is that there was no chance in hell the Capitals were going to pay a creaky, aging, old-style defenceman what someone else in the league would. Washington as a team may struggle to replace him, what with their tight salary cap situation, but that's not to say that he is an irreplaceable type of talent.
EOTP: What are your thoughts on the five-year contract that he signed with the Canadiens? What odds would you give to Alzner remaining a top 4 defenceman for the duration of the contract?
JR: It depends on what Montreal needs from him. Alzner will not drive your offense, full stop. He will, however, perform competently against strong competition for large chunks of minutes per game for many consecutive games in a row. If that's what the Habs need, then sure, he will be a top-4 defenseman, but only if he stays healthy and fully recovers from his previous injury. As for the money and the term, well... I'm glad some other team gave it to him and not the Caps.
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