Since Karl Alzner signed his five year, $23,125,000 contract with the Montreal Canadiens on July 1, 2017 there hasn’t been much that has gone as he would have hoped.
It is relative, of course. Most people would gladly take over $4 million a year to deal with what Alzner has been dealing with. But most of those people haven’t worked every day to become a professional hockey player. Most of those people didn’t see the team they played their entire NHL career with win the Stanley Cup the year after leaving. Most of those people don’t have to deal with the heightened expectations of a big contract along with the burden of that big contract which exiles you to the American Hockey League.
Even on Friday night, when he finally got the news he was returning to the NHL after 52 games in the AHL, it wasn’t easy. He was seen rushing out of the arena to meet the Canadiens in Ottawa, his locker already empty when media entered the room.
The locker room erupted in cheers when it was announced to them by Laval Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard that Alzner would be NHL-bound. For as much ink that has been spilled about how players struggled to adjust to the disappointment of being in the AHL, perhaps not enough was said about how positive Alzner was.
“Last year I said that I loved him at a 12/10, this year it’s 14/10,” said Bouchard. “The way he behaves in front of the young players, in front of adversity, he’s an extraordinary professional. He brings a lot on the ice as well. It’s not just that he’s nice with the guys that makes him good.”
That last part could be an interesting dilemma for a head coach, being happy for the player while also realizing that your top defenceman has to be replaced in the lineup. And you can easily make the argument that after a good training camp and strong AHL start, he should have been in the NHL already if not for his contract.
There’s also the shortage of defencemen in the organization that necessitated Alzner’s emergency recall. Evan McEneny left the game after a hit from behind, the team now has six defencemen who are healthy, including Ryan Culkin who was recalled from the ECHL and Nathanael Halbert, a former QMJHL player who not even a week ago was battling in the playoffs with McGill University. Both will play on Saturday afternoon against Toronto.
“My job is to be happy for my player when they’re called up,” Bouchard said. “We coach for the player. They’re here [in the AHL] to play in the NHL. If they all get called up and we all have to get dressed, me, Alex Burrows and Daniel Jacob we’ll do so. I can’t be a selfish coach in the AHL.”
One player who has seen Alzner from up close all season is Josh Brook. Brook has been Alzner’s partner for most of the season and that’s no accident. Just like it was no accident that Cale Fleury had that spot the year before.
“[He’s] very deserving,” Brook said. “He’s been awesome this year for me, for the team, for everyone. I’m very happy for him.”
“He’s been a great leader for this team,” said Rocket forward Jake Evans. “Every day he comes to work, he has a smile on his face. He’s someone especially the young guys but even the older guys have to look up to. He obviously doesn’t want to be in the AHL, he wasn’t planning on it but he’s come with such a great attitude.”
“He wants to be in the NHL, but he’s been here and this has been his team,” Bouchard said. “He’s been taking care of everybody. I’ve told the young guys how lucky they are to have a guy like that.”
The Rocket are in an interesting spot as besides the veterans who have had to deal with disappointment of being sent down and adjusting to life in the AHL, even their young players have had to deal with that as well. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cale Fleury started the year in the NHL while Ryan Poehling has been up and down, and Evans recently came back as well.
“I think right now what they’re seeing is quite cool, to see [Alzner] go up,” Bouchard said. “Young players are going through their own stuff, they’re in their own bubble and Karl is there and they take it for granted. Now tonight a lot were like ‘wow, that’s cool that this guy got the call after so many weeks.’”
In a week where two Rocket veterans were made healthy scratches and then traded, the improving play of elder statesman Alzner proved to be the antithesis of that trend.
“In the AHL you have to have good veterans,” Bouchard said. “You don’t need to have many. You need to have good ones who understand you need to have passion for the game, who understand what the process is and it’s better to have fewer that get it rather than a lot who are independent contractors.”