It has been a strange two years for Karl Alzner in the Montreal Canadiens organization, with bumps in the road and a complete 180 on his role within the team. Going from a big free-agent signing to a leadership role in the AHL club isn’t an easy transition for some players mentally, but Alzner handled this hurdle about as well as he could have. He ended up as the mentor for many of the young defenders coming into the professional ranks, and this past season was no different. Many people, rightfully, look at his contract but that pressure shouldn’t fall on him given that he was always going to sign a deal that was best for himself. Alzner has newfound value as a defensive mentor to many players, and while it isn’t immediately leading to NHL results, it’s a big step in the process of getting there.
Therein lies the biggest task for the veteran defender. Alzner’s biggest role for the Rocket was to be the guiding voice on and off the ice for many of the team’s young defenders. It’s a familiar role for Alzner, who last season spent a large portion of time mentoring Cale Fleury and Josh Brook at the end of the season. This year he had a varying number of partners, including Otto Leskinen and Gustav Olofsson, but began to shine when Brook was put on his pairing heading into the second half of the season.
As a rookie, Brook struggled to find his footing, finding himself as the seventh defender or even as a fourth-line forward some nights. He found his way back into the regular top six alongside Alzner, and with the veteran defender next to him his game began to round into form. Brook himself credited Alzner with helping him in a big way, with Alzner being a guide to professionalism on and off the ice and helping to get his rookie season back on track for a strong finish.
As stated above, it’s a role very familiar to Alzner and one he has done a fantastic job in. Fleury made the jump to the NHL after spending plenty of time with him, and Brook turned a corner after a disappointing start.
While his role as a mentor is extremely important, it’s also worth focusing on the positives Alzner brought to the ice each night too. Above anything else, when there were key defensive zone situations, Joël Bouchard knew he could toss Alzner out there and find success. While maybe a step behind where he needed to be at the NHL level, Alzner’s play at the AHL level is well above what is needed to be a defensive stalwart. That was the name of his game too. He wasn’t going to be a big point producer at any level anymore, but that also wasn’t the role the Rocket needed him to play. In fact, his only goal of the year came on a 200-foot clearing attempt with the opposing net empty late in the game.
Karl Alzner...FROM DOWNTOWN pic.twitter.com/tlY3gDtuBg— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) January 11, 2020
His shot did present plenty of chances for his teammates though, with his low point shots presenting easy targets for re-directions. He wasn’t lost in the offensive zone either, often jumping up in the zone to keep the cycle going. As stated above, that wasn’t always his preferred choice and he usually opted to be the last line of defence rather than an offensive force.
With a starring role on the penalty kill and defending leads late in the game, Alzner more than earned the “A” on his sweater every night. His strong play and leadership eventually led to him being an emergency recall and then sticking with the Canadiens as the season approached its eventual pandemic pause. In his four NHL games, Alzner actually played quite well, and it creates a question of whether or not he’s part of the NHL roster next year.
It goes beyond his on-ice value, unfortunately, as the COVID-19 pandemic’s rippling effect reached the NHL’s salary cap, keeping it flat for next year. With several players including Max Domi due for a raise, stashing Alzner’s contract in the AHL might be the wisest business decision for the Canadiens. There’s also the fact that in front of him are three more versatile left defenders, and that Alexander Romanov will be joining the team as well. That doesn’t mean Alzner doesn’t have value to the organization, and it’s more than what he can just bring to the ice in Laval.
With multiple young players learning on his pairing and growing into more defensively responsible, well-rounded players it showcases how strong a teacher Alzner can be. His value as a teacher for the upcoming prospects can’t be understated, but it’s also hard to balance that against a cap hit that continues for another two seasons. It’s unlikely that we’ll see Alzner moving on anytime soon due to that factor alone, but the upcoming players getting to learn alongside him are in a good spot and the Rocket can almost certainly rely on him when the situation calls for it. It’s not an easy spot to be in for Karl Alzner, but he’s certainly doing everything he can to make the most of it.