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Free agent Karl Alzner set to get 'first taste' of the NHL's business side

Free agent Karl Alzner set to get 'first taste' of the NHL's business side

Some players look at free agency as an exciting opportunity. Others view it as a nerve-racking proposition fraught with uncertainty.

Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner definitely considers himself among the latter group.

“At the end of every season, even when I was up for another contract, I always felt really comfortable,” the 28-year-old said recently. “Some people look at free agency and go, ‘Yeah, this is really awesome. I get to go see what I can get.’”

“For other people,” he continued, “it’s unknown, and they don’t like unknown. I’m curious [to see] how it’s all going to happen. But I don’t like the feeling of not having something.”

The Capitals are all Alzner has known as a professional hockey player. He was drafted fifth overall by the team in 2007, came up through Washington's minor league system and has been a rock on the Caps' blue line for the past eight seasons.

Now he’s slated to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time.   

“It’s my first real taste of what the [business side of] the NHL is like,” said Alzner, who, following the expiration of his entry level deal in 2011, re-upped twice, both times as a restricted free agent.

Just like Washington's far-too-early playoff exit, the possibility of switching teams hasn’t really sunk in yet.    

“We consider this home,” he said.

The ‘we’ is himself, his wife Mandy and children Stella and Anson.

“Whenever we say we’re going home or we’re filling out any paperwork, this is home,” he said, referring to Arlington, Va. “We feel so comfortable here. We spent the entire summer here last year. We could spend another summer here. We’ve met a lot of great people and we love it here. This is one of a handful of places around the league where if you spend your whole career here, you could easily stay here. And that, without a doubt, crossed our mind when we bought our house here and had kids. But a lot of it’s not really in my hands. I guess it kind of is in my hands, but they make the decisions upstairs.”

The durable, steady top-4 D-man also made this much clear: he doesn't want the negotiation to be all about money, at least from his end. He earned $2.8 million in each of the last three seasons.

“There’s definitely curiosity, but for me there’s lots of things that are more important than dollars in my life,” he said. “So the most interesting thing will be to see how talks go with the team here first.”

On the ice, this was a challenging year for Alzner, who had offseason surgery to repair a sports hernia and partially torn groin muscle. The recovery turned out to be trickier than expected for a player who, by his own admission, wasn’t a speed demon on skates to begin with. Still, he suited up for all 82 games—again—while matching up against top competition and playing 19:47 per game on average.

In the playoffs, Alzner encountered another injury. He suffered a broken right hand while blocking a shot in Game 1 vs. Toronto. He played hurt in Game 2 but ended up missing the next six contests.

“Just a harmless shot block,” he lamented. “Probably an unnecessary shot block.”

As for the decision makers upstairs—GM Brian MacLellan and Co.—they’ve got to sort through a lot, including Alzner's future, as they contemplate a pathway forward for a team that dominated the regular season but, once again, failed to get out of the second round of the playoffs.

There are five unrestricted free agents on the current roster. There are also six restricted free agents that need new deals. And, of course, there’s a finite amount of space under a salary cap that’s expected to remain relatively flat. 

Then there’s THE question facing Caps management: is it time for massive changes to the core, of which Alzner has been a part since 2010?

“I don’t know how I’ll fit into the makeup here if things get blown up,” he said. “But, you know, we’ll find out. …It’s definitely possible. You can only get to the second round so many times before you have to think that something needs to be changed. But I’m not an architect of a team. I don’t know how you do that exactly. I thought we were winning this year…but we still didn’t. So you have to go back to the drawing board, I think.”

Alzner didn’t know what the future held as he walked out of Kettler Capitals Iceplex last week following another breakdown day that arrived sooner than anyone had envisioned. But he was certain of this much: another golden opportunity had been allowed to slip.

“It’s definitely the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had because this was the most realistic chance of winning that we’ve had,” he said. “This is a pretty good window that we had here and, unfortunately, it’s not there anymore.”

MORE CAPITALS: How can the Caps balance pressure with joy?

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Thumbs up, thumbs down: Nathan Walker impresses in preseason opener

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AP Images

Thumbs up, thumbs down: Nathan Walker impresses in preseason opener

The Capitals struck first Monday, but were shutdown the rest of the game in a 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils. Here are the players who stood out for Washington.

Thumbs up

Nathan Walker:
The young Aussie made the most of his opportunity on Monday with the Capitals’ lone goal on the night. Walker streaked up the ice along the boards, passed it to Lars Eller then crossed to the front of the net. He was in good position for the rebound and showed quick hands to get the puck and shoot it past goalie Keith Kinkaid for the shorthanded goal. It was a pure effort play and showed the exact type of spark the team is looking for in a fourth line winger. There were various times throughout the game when a Devil would try to muscle Walker out of the play and he would respond with a few shoves and slashes of his own. He did not back down from any challenge.

Braden Holtby: If you were worried Holtby’s rough postseason would follow him to the fall, that does not appear to be the case. The Caps netminder looked smooth as he turned aside 18 of 19 shots. The only goal came on a long distance slap shot through a screen. Granted, it’s a preseason game against a quasi NHL roster, but a solid performance for Holtby nonetheless.

Alex Chiasson: A player on a PTO cannot afford to have a quiet night. The team has every reason to want to play their prospects or other players already signed to a contract. Chiasson had a solid game, was in good position throughout the night and used his body well. His lone penalty of the night was a goal-saving slash on Kyle Palmieri so you can’t really hold it against him. He played like a dependable veteran player who the team could rely on as a bottom-six forward.

RELATED: WHY NESS' SKATING ABILITY GIVES HIM A LEG UP

Thumbs down

The refs: I understand that the NHL wants to emphasize slashing penalties and faceoff violations, but this game was absurd. I cannot remember if I have ever seen a penalty called for a faceoff violation ever. There were three in this game alone. Add in another six slashing penalties and you’ve got yourself a long night. In total, there were 20 penalties called. No one is expecting that to carry over into the regular season, but this felt unnecessary and made all the more frustrating by the multiple times in which play was whistled prematurely when the wrong team had possession of the puck.

Lars Eller: Eller assisted on the Capitals’ lone goal of the game, but he also had an unnecessary boarding penalty in the first period that brought the ire of the Devils players. He took two penalties for the game and, while the refs were certainly trigger happy with the whistles, considering the penalty issues he had at the beginning of last season this is not a pattern the team will want to see again.

Chandler Stephenson: Stephenson has 13 games of NHL experience under his belt meaning he should have a leg up over some of the younger players competing for a roster spot. And yet, Stephenson was essentially a non-factor on the night. He took two penalties in the first period and finished without a single shot attempt.

Christian Djoos: Djoos is in a battle to make the roster and he had essentially no impact on this game. He established himself as a playmaker in Hershey, but finished with a very pedestrian night in which he managed only one shot on goal despite over five minutes of power play time. He will need to do better than that to make the roster.

MORE CAPITALS: NATIONALS SLUGGER DANIEL MURPHY VISITS CAPS PRACTICE

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Aaron Ness’ skating could give him a leg up in Caps' D competition

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USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Ness’ skating could give him a leg up in Caps' D competition

It’s been a while since defenseman Aaron Ness felt he had a legitimate shot at earning an NHL roster spot.

“It’s exciting,” said Ness, who’ll be in the lineup Monday night as the Capitals open their seven-game preseason slate in New Jersey. “Anytime there’s a couple of spots open, it always amps it up a bit.”

Ness signed with the Caps as a free agent in July 2015 knowing Washington had a roster stocked with veteran D-men and that he’d likely spend the majority of his time with their minor league affiliate in Hershey. And that’s exactly how it’s played out. Two seasons ago, he saw 62 games in Hershey and eight in Washington. Last season, he played 51 games for the Bears and two for the Caps.

This year, however, things are much different.

RELATED: SIZE IS OVERRATED WHEN IT COMES TO CHRISTIAN DJOOS

The Caps have five defensemen on one-way NHL contracts, which leaves two spots up for grabs if you include the spare.

As such, the competition over the next couple of weeks figures to be fierce, with Ness duking it out with prospects Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Lucas Johansen, Connor Hobbs, Jonas Siegenthaler and journeyman Jyrki Jokipakka, who is on a professional tryout.

“You obviously have to prove yourself; that’s what camp is for,” Ness said. “For me, it’s showing what I can do and showing what I bring to the table.”

Ness’ experience gives him a slight edge over the youngsters; he’s played 39 NHL games since 2012, including 20-game call-up with the Islanders in 2013-14. But it’s his mobility and top-notch skating ability that could end up putting him on the Caps’ opening night roster.

“He’s been really solid down in Hershey and when he’s come up he’s played really well for us,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “The game has gone to skating, so no question, he is a guy that we have some trust in.”

Ness, who is listed at 5-10, 184-pounds, added: “That’s my game there--skating is huge for me. I’m not the biggest guy in the world.”

Asked to describe his game, he said, “I try to make a good first pass out of the D-zone, defend well and then jump up and create as much offense as possible.”  

At 27, this also represents Ness' best opportunity of earning an NHL job—and hanging onto it—since he was selected by the Islanders in the second round of the 2008 draft.

“This is the first time where there’s actually been spots available when I’ve been to a camp,” Ness said. “It’s for sure one of the best opportunities I’ve had so far. It’s an exciting time.”

Trotz says he sees a player who needed some additional seasoning in the minors but now appears “ready” to challenge for a full-time role in the majors.

“Different players take different opportunities at different times,” Trotz said. “He’s ready. If he continues to play well, he’ll definitely be in the mix.”

MORE CAPITALS: DANIEL MURPHY WAS A SPECIAL GUEST AT CAPS' PRACTICE