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Instant Analysis: Signing Karl Alzner to a five-year deal is a step backward

The Habs made their first move of free agency, and it was a questionable one at best.

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Marc Bergevin’s first move of free agency wasn’t only notable for the player he brought in, but also for the one who may be forced out to make room.

By signing Karl Alzner to a five-year contract with an AAV of $4.625 million — a 65% raise on his previous deal — there may not be enough salary cap space, or roster space, to re-sign Andrei Markov, who officially became a free agent at noon Eastern. One of the most productive defenders in Montreal Canadiens history could be playing out the final years of his illustrious career in another city.

At 38, Markov’s two-year demand was seen as too much term for the Habs to take on. There were few qualms about handing out five years to a defender who had never played for the team, however, suggesting that Bergevin believes he’ll be getting more from Alzner in the next few years than he would have from his long-time veteran.

So let’s break down their play and see who has the advantage.

Offence

As far as production, there’s no contest in the point-scoring department. Markov has scored 0.58 points per contest over his 990-game career to date. Alzner has contributed 0.20 points per game; one point for ever five games he’s played.

If you exclude the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons in which Markov played a total of 20 games while recovering from knee injuries, Markov’s worst offensive production (23 points in his rookie season in 2000-01) is better than Alzner’s best output (back-to-back 21-point seasons from 2014-15 to 2015-16). If the concern about Markov is his inevitable decline, he still put up 36 points in just 62 games last season, and came just short of extending a 40-point streak to four seasons.

Looking at more underlying offensive numbers, since the start of the 2014-15 season, Alzner has been on the ice for 27.0 shots on the opposing target per 60 minutes of five-on-five time, with 50.4 shot attempts per 60 minutes. Markov saw 32.6 shots per 60 minutes launched at the opponent’s netminder, from 62.3 shot attempts per 60.

In a team-based comparison, Markov had a +10.3% relative goals-for percentage for the Canadiens. Alzner was a -0.19% on the Capitals. Markov registered a +1.24 relative Corsi-for percentage in three years, Alzner a concerning -6.79%.

For context, Markov has a 48.2% offensive-zone start percentage in that time period, while Alzner clocks in at 47.2%, so there isn’t a great disparity in their deployment.

Defence

In terms of keeping the puck out of their net, in those three years Markov has seen the red light go on behind Carey Price about 1.62 times per 60 minutes of play. Alzner is virtually the same with a mark of 1.65 goals against per 60.

Markov was on the ice for 53.5 shot attempts against per hour of icetime, Alzner for 56.3. In terms of those that have made it on goal, Markov allowed 29.1 shots per 60 minutes, and Alzner was essentially identical at 29.0.

Image credit: Own The Puck

Verdict

In choosing to take on Karl Alzner as the top-pairing defender on the left side, the Habs made a lateral move defensively when compared to what Andrei Markov would bring. Offensively, it’s a major step backward for a team that had difficulty scoring goals even with Markov’s elite-level production.

If the concern was Markov’s typical $5.75 million cap hit getting in the way of a Carey Price extension, Alzner’s $4.625 doesn’t do much to alleviate the financial difficulties of signing the league’s top goaltender. The added offence that Markov would bring is worth much more than the $1.125 million difference in their salaries, and Alzner’s deal will overlap with the inevitable Price deal for a longer period of time.

The Habs have gone from having one of the best top threes in the league, with P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, and Jeff Petry just over one year ago, to having serious doubts about their ability to transition the puck from defence to offence.

If the decision was to sign Alzner instead of one of the best defenders the organization has ever seen, it is a mind-boggling one, and it’s difficult to find any ways in which it has made the Canadiens a better team.