BALLSTON, VA - In his first full season in Washington, Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner is off to a fine start. In 19 games, Alzner has recorded three points (1g, 2a), is a plus four, and is averaging over 18 minutes of ice time per game. Alzner has even gained the confidence of Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau, as Boudreau has left the young defenseman on the ice late in games with the Capitals defending a late game lead.
Yet, if asked about how his first full NHL season has started Alzner gives a very simple answer.
"I'm just happy to be here."
Alzner's joy for being a full-time NHL player is evident every single day. The 6-3, 215-pound 22-year-old Burnaby, British Columbia, native is often seen smiling, whether on the ice during practice at Kettler Capitals IcePlex, in the Capitals' locker room or on game nights.
That may not seem like anything to make a big fuss about, considering the other personalities in the Capitals locker room, but in Alzner case, it tells the entire story.
The fifth overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Alzner quickly made his way through the Capitals minor league system, making his Capitals debut in November of 2008. Alzner parlayed that quick ascension into playing in 30 games for the Capitals during the 2008-2009 season and 21 more last season.
However, Alzner was left off the Capitals' playoff roster each season. After not cracking the Capitals opening night lineup for the second consecutive season in 2009-10, he admitted another demotion to the American Hockey League this season would've been hard to deal with.
"It definitely would've been hard to come back from," he said. "Going back to the minors definitely would've been a big blow.
Alzner was sparred that mental challenge when Boudreau came up to him while he was riding on an exercise bike at Kettler several days before the Capitals' season began. Boudreau's instructions to Alzer? "Go find a place."
When Alzner heard that, he got off the bike and was admittedly "a little emotional" as his childhood dream had finally become a realization.
Alzner's transition to the NHL has been eased as Boudreau has paired Alzner with rookie defensemen John Carlson, whom Alzner was often paired with last season while both were still with the Hershey Bears.
Yet, Alzner has embraced more than just the on-ice aspect of being a full-time NHL player. He enjoys talking to the media, saying "it's fun coming in [to the locker room] and talking to the reporters and saying a few words about what's been going on with the team." He often reads news clips to read his quotes from the day before.
"Sometimes I read that stuff and I'm like ‘I can't believe I actually said that,'" said Alzner. "It's still fun, though."
One aspect of being in the NHL that Alzner admits he takes seriously is interacting with fans. Alzner refers back to his time in the Western Hockey League while playing for the Calgary Hitmen and a piece of advice he received from assistant coach Joel Otto, who played in the NHL from 1984-1998 for the Calgary Flames and the Philadelphia Flyers.
"It was my last day with the team and he told me to ‘make sure people can read your autograph,'" said Alzner. "So many guys nowadays just kind of scribble their signature when signing stuff, so that's something that has stuck with me."
It took a few years and a few setbacks, but Alzner has finally realized his childhood dream and is establishing himself as difference maker. All the more reason for him to "just be happy to be here."