2017 Free Agency Targets: Nate Schmidt vs. Karl Alzner — A tale of two former Capitals

There’s a pair of defencemen from last year’s team in Washington to be had, but only one is worth chasing.

News broke earlier this week that free-agent defenceman Karl Alzner had visited with the Montreal Canadiens while making the rounds with other NHL teams. Alzner himself mentioned that he has interest in Montreal, but he’s seeking a long-term deal, and, due to his reputation, likely a decent chunk of money as well.

There are a number of reasons why Marc Bergevin should pass on Alzner, both financial and statistical.

The biggest issue right now is that Alzner doesn’t fit anywhere into the Montreal lineup. He isn’t better or more productive than Andrei Markov, and doesn’t suppress shots as well as David Schlemko, Jordie Benn, or Brandon Davidson. Further to that, he’s not a top-pairing defender, at least not at this point in his career. While having depth on defence isn’t a bad thing, at a certain point it becomes a problem, and not everyone will get regular ice time.

Statistically, Alzner has a negative impact in terms of possession stats. At even strength he had a Corsi-for percentage of just 47.3%, and every teammate had worse numbers when playing with him.

Despite that performance, Alzner is looking for a long-term, big-money deal as he exits his playing prime. For the money Alzner’s camp is looking for is he suitable for the minutes he might be playing? Alexei Emelin was paid $4.1 million to play minutes as a fourth to sixth defenceman in Montreal, and Alzner would be playing similar minutes.

If Marc Bergevin is looking for another left-handed defender, he should be looking at another former Washington Capital. No it’s not Kevin Shattenkirk, who is likely too expensive, and plays on the wrong side to be of major interest to Montreal. But rather the player recently plucked off Washington’s roster by the Vegas Golden Knight: Nate Schmidt.

Schmidt was taken by Vegas in the expansion draft, and could be available for the reasonable cost. As it stands Montreal has a few additional second-round picks for 2018 from trades made in recent years. If that’s the cost to acquire a solid puck-moving defender with major upside, then it should be a simple decision. Even with Schmidt being a restricted free agent, his deal is likely to be far more palatable to a team like Montreal that still needs to pay a few of its own free agents.

Now, compared to his former teammate, Schmidt looks to be a more useful option on the ice than Alzner. Based on a head-to-head comparison, Schmidt does better in shot generation while being equal in terms of preventing pucks from getting to his net. It’s worth noting that Schmidt played far less than Alzner did: almost a 500-minutes difference on the year.

Play styles of course are something to consider, Alzner is someone who an old-school thinker like Bergevin might appreciate. He’s an atypical defensive defenceman, but he doesn’t do as much to limit shots on his net as one would exect.

Schmidt is a smooth-skating puck-mover on the blue line; the next generation of NHL player. He’s not going to be P.K. Subban out there, but Schmidt is more than capable of starting the breakout from his own end and bringing it into the opposing zone to create chances for his teammates.

Perhaps Schmidt’s simplest advantage over Alzner is the fact that his cap hit will be drastically lower. Alzner is a long-time veteran who will be looking for one major payday before he hits the backside of his career. Schmidt is young, underrated, but also unproven in the eyes of NHL general managers. Being a cheaper option makes it easier to fit him into the a bottom-three role on the defence, while Alzner would be shoehorned into a larger role based on experience and cap hit alone.

There’s no guarantee that Bergevin pursues either option, given his pressing needs elsewhere. But if he’s chasing former Washington Capitals, it’s a wise investment to take a young Nate Schmidt over a declining Karl Alzner.

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