The writing was on the wall for Karl Alzner from the outset of the season.
Ahead of Montreal’s opening night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Alzner was sat down by Canadiens bench boss Claude Julien, scratched in the first game of the second season of his five-year, $23.125-million contract. Worse yet, the scratch put an end to one of the longest iron man streaks in NHL history. Alzner had played in 622 consecutive games, toughing out bumps and bruises only to see his streak snapped by virtue of a healthy scratch.
Alzner’s situation didn’t improve in Montreal, either. The second game of the campaign brought much of the same. And then Alzner was benched again in the Canadiens’ third, fourth and fifth games. When he finally got back into action, it wasn’t for long — a two-game run on the Montreal blueline before another two-game spell as a healthy scratch. The campaign, from there on out, has followed a similar pattern. Alzner’s game log displays only two speeds: middle-pairing defenseman or healthy scratch.
On Monday, though, Alzner’s situation with the Canadiens came to a potential head when Montreal placed the 30-year-old blueliner, who has one point in eight games and an ice time average of 17:36, on waivers. And while it may come as a surprise to some that the Canadiens are trying to cut bait on what looks to be a potentially unmovable contract, the unfortunate reality regarding Alzner’s tough tenure in Montreal is that it could have been seen coming the moment he put pen to paper on his pact back in July 2017.
While there’s something to be said about what Alzner brings to the table — he’s a gutsy performer who’s willingness to block shots and throw his weight around has never been questioned — it’s what the veteran blueliner lacked at the time he was handed his big-money deal that was most apparent in the modern game.
In an era where the eye-test and advanced statistical analysis are both valued, Alzner, who is one of the latest victims of an oversized cap hit relative to his on-ice performance, had a few issues. The most readily apparent issue was that his skating was considered one of the weaker aspects of his game, and there was an obvious lack of statistical output that made Alzner a somewhat risky signing on a deal that paid upwards of $4.5-million per season. In nearly 600 games with the Washington Capitals, with whom he played his entire big-league career before signing in Montreal, Alzner managed just 19 goals and 117 points despite being a part of what was often one of the league’s top attacks.
But the underlying issues were ever present, as well. Alzner fared well on a base measure of his advanced statistical counts and rates in 5-on-5 categories. His Corsi, shot, scoring chance and high-danger chance percentages were often around the break-even mark, and his goals for percentages were generally middling. But it was in the comparison to teammates, which can be seen in his relative percentages in the aforementioned categories, that some cause for concern arose.
For instance, when compared to the rates of teammates in Washington, Alzner’s possession rates were often in the negatives, and the pair of full season’s in which he boasted a positive relative Corsi percentage — in 2010-11 and 2012-13 — he was less than one percent better than his teammates. On the other side of the spectrum, though, Alzner was more than one-percent worse than his teammates on four occasions, including a relative Corsi percentage nearly seven percent worse than that of his teammates in 2016-17. The same holds true for his other percentages, too, and in the five seasons prior to arriving in Montreal, Alzner had only one season with a goals for percentage that was positive when held in comparison to the rest of the Capitals. That came in 2014-15. Alzner’s relative goals for percentage was 0.04 percent.
Many of those same issues carried over into Montreal, too. Last season, for instance, Alzner ended the campaign with OK underlying numbers. He has a 50.4 Corsi percentage, 50.1 shots percentage, 50.6 scoring chance percentage and 51.7 high-danger chance percentage at five-a-side. His 44.9 goals for percentage was ugly, to be sure, but it was indicative of the overall struggles Montreal had keeping the puck out of their net last season. The relative rates don’t tell the same story, though. He was a negative performer in Corsi (0.2 percent), shots (0.8), scoring chances (0.3) and high-danger chances (2.3) percentages relative to his teammates. His goals for percentage was negative-0.4 percent, as well.
Did Alzner play against a high-quality opponent last season? Absolutely, just as he’s done throughout his career. But at some point, a shutdown defenseman has to, you know, shut down the opposition. He had been largely unsuccessful during his debut campaign with the Canadiens, and it was evident in the early part of this season — and especially now, with Shea Weber on the verge of returning and Alzner on waivers — that the feeling within the organization is that his signing was a (sizeable) miss.
So, what does that mean for Alzner? It’s probably unreasonable to expect that he’ll be plucked off waivers, particularly not at his current cap hit. Truth be told, that Montreal is waiving Alzner instead of trading him all but indicates that there was no team willing to saddle themselves with the remaining three-plus seasons of the contract, at least not at this point in time. Realistically, this means Alzner is bound for the AHL’s Laval Rocket, his first tour of duty in the development circuit since the 2009-10 campaign. At some point down the line, though, Alzner could find himself back with the Canadiens as an injury replacement or bottom-pairing defenseman if the team is in need.
Long-term, though, Alzner’s future has to be up in the air. We’ve seen other off-season signings re-emerge in the NHL after similar demotions in recent years, most notably Brendan Smith in New York, but the Canadiens arguably have a bigger logjam on the blueline the Rangers. With that in mind, the best bet for Alzner to continue his career in the NHL is likely outside of Montreal, though how he arrives there — by waivers, trade or buyout-related-free agency — likely won’t be determined until next summer, at the earliest.