January 11 2017 12:00PM
Future Free Agents is a semi-regular feature on NHLNumbers profiling players from 2017's potential free agency class.
With Brent Burns signed in San Jose, the 2017 unrestricted free agent defenceman market gets very thin very fast. You have Kevin Shattenkirk as your clear cut top option, especially for those teams who need a boost in production from the blue line. Then, after him, you have Karl Alzner, the best option for a team looking for a steady, consistent, shut down guy.
But as we've seen over the past few summers, teams are becoming skeptical of handing big contracts to stay at home defencemen like Alzner who contribute little offensively. Is he still going to be able to command the salary of a top pairing defenceman on the open market? With the league's gradual shift to analytics, is he still a valued commodity?
How good is he?
Karl Alzner is revered as one of the league’s best defensive, shut down defencemen. He’s big, strong, is an excellent, smooth skater, and has a fantastic sense of positional awareness. When he’s on the ice, he looks calm and poised, and the game just kind of slows down around him. He's also tremendously reliable, as he hasn't missed a game due to injury since the 2009-10 season.
But players like this are quite a conundrum. New-age hockey theory suggests defencemen should be mobile and fluid, and need to be able to produce, or at least assist in driving team offensive production. Traditional hockey theory for many, many years has ran on the notion that it’s the defenceman’s job to be a defenceman, and that there are offensive defencemen and defensive defencemen who play in different situations. But that's rapidly changing, as the big, physical, shut down defenceman seems to be going extinct in favour of more skilled and creative blue liners.
Alzner doesn’t produce a lick offensively. He never has, and never will. It isn’t part of his game at all, as he’s managed just 19 goals and 490 shots on net over a 549-game NHL career. So his calling card, and, ultimately his worth as a free agent on the open market, is entirely based on his ability to play defence. Like I said, Alzner is commonly talked about as an elite shut down defender, among names like Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Chris Tanev, and Andy Greene. The eye test seems to validate this claim, but do the numbers?
Off the hop, Alzner’s ability to stop the other team from scoring looks impressive. Only one guy over the past three seasons is on the ice for fewer goals against per hour than Alzner is? Damn! That certainly looks like an elite defensive defenceman. But when you dig further, it becomes a little more complicated.
Alzner’s shot, shot attempt, and unblocked shot attempt numbers against per hour are solid, but come nowhere near matching his goals against results. So how, if his shot numbers are nothing more than solid, does he manage to have an elite result in keeping the puck out of the net?
His 94.94 on-ice save percentage would do the trick. There’s still an argument within the analytics community as to how much credit or criticism an individual player should get for a good or bad on-ice save percentage. The argument in favour of Alzner and other players of his kind would indicate that what he does well, like blocking shots, keeping pucks to the outside, or playing physically in front of the net lead to the other team not getting high quality chances, and thus, scoring fewer goals when he’s on the ice.
I think there’s some merit to that, but since his shots against results are quite a but worse than his goals against results, we have to look at some other factors. Before we give credit to Alzner for singlehandedly making Washington better at not allowing goals, we should look at what the rest of the team is doing.
As the chart above shows, Alzner ranks second in goals against per hour. His teammates, Nate Schmidt and Matt Niskanen, rank fourth and sixth respectively. Past them, Dmitry Orlov ranks 42nd and John Carlson ranks 48th. So five of Washington’s defencemen are in the top 50 in the NHL over the past three seasons and stopping the other team from scoring.
With that considered, we have to assume that, to an extent, Alzner is the benefactor of external factors. First and foremost, Braden Holtby is an excellent goaltender. Having him be the last line of defence when you’re playing will certainly play a big role in you not being on the ice for goals against. Also, Barry Trotz runs a damn good defensive system. This was evident in his time in Nashville, and it’s evident with both the eye test and the numbers now that he’s in Washington.
Obviously defencemen, and, well, the defensive aspect of the game in general is tremendously difficult to analyze, but what we have here is a player with statistics that simply don't match the notion of elite play. Alzner's numbers suggest he's good at shutting the other team down, but he isn't elite. And if your calling card as a player is based entirely around shutting the other team down, you simply have to be better than good at doing so.
How much is he going to cost?
Nick Kypreos, who has proven to be very reliable in reporting insider information over the past few years, discussed Alzner with Elliotte Freidman on Hockey Night in Canada back in November. The video is embedded above for those who want full context, but I'll get right to the point.
Elliotte Friedman: Eight times eight and it takes the best available defenseman in this summer’s free agent market off the market. So we’re talking about who’s next. I think there’s two guys. There’s Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner, who Nick will talk about in a moment.
I understand that last summer, there were two teams that were given permission to talk to Kevin Shattenkirk by St. Louis. I believe that was Edmonton and Arizona. The teams aren’t commenting. The agent’s not commenting. From what I understand that was the case. Shattenkirk wasn’t interested in Edmonton. Arizona did have some movement, but obviously not far enough to get a deal done. A lot of teams think Shattenkirk likes the Rangers, but they do think if there’s a bidding war there, it could push him up close to $7 million.
Nick Kypreos: So Elliotte, if you need offense, you go Shattenkirk. If you need a shutdown guy, you go Karl Alzner here. And if you’re now the Washington Capitals and you’ve got as many as 10 contracts expiring at the end of the year and one of them is Karl Alzner, you’re going to have some challenges here. The problem now is the price has been set for Karl Alzner is as much as $6 million… they believe… is going-rate for a top-four defenseman. They can’t go down that path. Not until you truly know what you want to do.
That's.. Uhh. That's certainly something.
The $6 million figure certainly isn't the going rate for a top-four defenceman, as that cap hit would put a player in the top 20 in the league among defencemen heading into 2017-18. And when looking at the names in that category, none of them are players who are purely shut down defencemen. All of them either drive offence while on the ice, produce 30 points or more, or can be used as an option on the power play.
When you look at comparables for old school, high level, minute munching, stay at home guys, you can see why Alzner's camp would start at $6 million. Brooks Orpik makes $5.5 million, Marc Staal $5.7, Dan Girardi $5.5, and so on. None of them are as good as Alzner is in similar roles.
But those are also some of the more maligned contracts in the league right now. And as we've seen over the past couple of offseasons, teams aren't quite as excited to give out big money to guys who don't bring offence to the table as they used to be. Also, with more front offices moving towards embracing a new age style of analysis, there'll likely be fewer teams lining up for Alzner's services. That's what went down with Kris Russell, who was arguably the 2016 crop's biggest defensive defenceman name on the market last summer.
So, overall, it's difficult to see Alzner actually getting $6 million annually on a long-term deal when it's all said and done, even if we throw out the numbers from the last section and assume he truly is the cream of the crop in his role.
But anyways, for the sake of the article, let's just say that Alzner gets what he wants and is going to cost $6 million over a five- or six-year deal.
Can Washington afford it?
At that price? No way.
The Capitals have a quickly closing Stanley Cup contention window right now. Along with Alzner, the Caps have T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik set to hit the open market this summer. They also have to hand out new contracts Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andrei Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, and multiple others.
They currently have about $50 million tied into six forwards, four defencemen, and one goalie heading into 2017-18. Depending on where the cap ends up, that gives them roughly $21 million for the other half of their roster. So it isn't going to be easy to fit that collection of pay raises into their salary spreadsheet.
If Washington was to make this work, they would likely have to move Brooks Orpik's contract without taking much back in return. That obviously isn't going to happen. Otherwise, they'll have to prioritize Alzner's contract demands over those of, say, Oshie, who's also going to be looking for a raise. Again, that's probably not going to happen. It's realistically going to come down to Alzner accepting a hometown discount to stick around in Washington, and based on that $6 million figure Kypreos said he's throwing out there, I doubt that's going to happen.
If he hits the open market...
Teams won't be tripping over themselves to get to him like they will with Shattenkirk, but there's definitely going to be a handful of teams interested in signing a consistent, reliable blue liner like Alzner.
The Buffalo Sabres are the first team that comes to mind. They have a pretty putrid blue line right now, especially on the left side. Dmitry Kulikov, who was acquired in a deal with the Computer Boys in Florida last summer, was supposed to be their rugged, shut down solution, but he's struggled with injury and is an unrestricted free agent at season's end. Maybe they walk away from Kulikov and replace him with Alzner, or hell, they can sign both and try to rid themselves of one of their many horrible contracts instead (Gorges, Kane, Moulson, etc).
The Boston Bruins also make sense as a fit for Alzner. Their defence is pretty thin, Zdeno Chara is reaching the end and they could certainly use an heir to his throne. Is Alzner Chara? Absolutely not. Not even close. But we know the Bruins front office digs this kind of old school player and they sure aren't afraid to make a splash in free agency.
So do the Dallas Stars. The Stars let their top two defencemen, Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers walk last summer, and didn't bite on giving a long-term deal to Kris Russell, who they acquired at the trade deadline. They instead filled the hole with Dan Hamhuis on a nice, manageable two-year deal, and Johnny Oduya's contract comes to an end this summer, so they certainly have the flexibility to throw some money and term at Alzner.
And those are just three teams that make sense as a possible fit. There are certainly going to be more out there who would be interested in Alzner. Will there be as many as the teams who want the offence producing, right handed Kevin Shattenkirk? Unlikely. But still, there's a decent market here. Possibly even big enough that Alzner could end up getting paid that $6 million annual salary he's set. Who knows!
Personally, I wouldn't sign Karl Alzner to a big money contract. He's going to be 29 years old in September, has a lot of miles on him, and doesn't have the underlying numbers to support the claim that he truly is an elite defender beyond a reasonable doubt.
You can probably knock all of the fancy stat teams, like Toronto, Florida, Arizona, and Carolina out of the conversation, along with teams in tough cap situations like Los Angeles, the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and so on.
But even then, you still have a decent sized group of teams who could use a steady and consistent stay at home guy like Alzner even if the numbers don't necessarily back up what his visuals suggest. But that said, he's still the best defenceman of his kind on the market right now, and as we'll see as I dig further into the free agency class, it get really ugly really fast after Alzner and Shattenkirk.