You’d think it must have been hard for Karl Alzner to watch the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup last season in their first year without him.
It was — at first.
Alzner spent nine seasons with the Capitals before signing a five-year, US$23.125-million contract as a free agent with the Canadiens on July 1, 2017.
“The first two rounds (of the playoffs) were more of like almost a negative thing,” Alzner said about watching his former team win its first Stanley Cup. “Don’t want to see the team that you were on win as soon as you’re not there. But then after they beat Pittsburgh (in the second round) it was all done. I knew the joy and excitement that they were probably feeling and it’s kind of like a flip switch. At that point, I was 100-per-cent confident they were going to win that third round (against the Tampa Bay Lightning) … I just knew it. And then after that you see the way they were playing it was excitement at that point.”
The Capitals went on to beat the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup final.
“I’ve never been happy for a team to win until last year,” Alzner said after the Canadiens’ morning skate Thursday in Brossard. “It was the first time I’ve actually genuinely been happy because you know so many people on the team. That was kind of like the silver lining to it all.”
Thursday night, it must have been very hard for Alzner to be a healthy scratch when the Canadiens played the Capitals at the Bell Centre. It marked the eighth time in 12 games this season the 30-year-old defenceman has been scratched from the lineup.
At the end of Thursday’s morning skate, Alzner’s teammates had him lead the team stretch at centre ice. A different player is chosen to do it after each practice and morning skate.
“They tried to get me to do it yesterday,” Alzner said. “I didn’t because I’m a once-a-year kind of guy … maybe twice-a-year kind of guy. So I told them to save it for today.”
At the morning skate, Alzner wasn’t sure if he would play against the Capitals. It would depend on whether Noah Juulsen was ready to return to the lineup after missing the previous two games with an upper-body injury. After Juulsen got the green light from the team’s medical staff, Alzner was scratched from the lineup.
“It’s been weird,” Alzner said about his current situation. “The first two games I’d say were difficult just because it was so foreign. I was feeling so good coming into the season, too, so that part was difficult. But since then it’s been a little bit different. I’m always a positive guy, no matter when things look really bad or just sort of bad, I try and stay the same. I’m at that point right now where if I’m not contributing on the ice I know I can still contribute off the ice. Just kind of mentality and life in the room and stuff. So it’s been better.”
A big reason for that is new assistant coach Luke Richardson, who has been working hard with Alzner during and after practices. After a recent morning skate, Richardson put Alzner through some vigorous skating and puck-moving drills and the 49-year-old coach and former player did them with him, looking like he could still skate in the NHL.
“He can still skate and he’s still super strong, too,” Alzner said about Richardson. “We were doing a down-low drill and he stiff-armed Shawsy (Andrew Shaw) the one time and we were laughing about it after because he almost put him through the boards. It was pretty impressive.
“He just gets it,” Alzner added. “He wants to teach you. He seems to know the guys’ personalities pretty good already. And it’s positive. He doesn’t come down on guys hard. He comes down on them in a good, constructive way and that just makes a world of difference right now. Especially with the way we played last year that’s what we need, some positive reinforcement. There’s times where you come down on guys, but he hasn’t been doing that. In my history I think that’s what guys benefit from the best. I’ve just impressed by how well he’s been able to manage every guy.”
Five of the defencemen playing instead of Alzner — Jordie Benn ($1.1 million), Noah Juulsen ($863,333), Victor Mete ($748,333), Mike Reilly ($725,000) and Xavier Ouellet ($700,000) — have a combined salary-cap hit of $4.136 million that is less than Alzner’s $4.625-million hit. The way Alzner’s contract breaks down, he is actually earning $6 million this season. It’s a contract GM Marc Bergevin would obviously like to take back, but you can’t change history.
All Alzner can do now is keep working hard with Richardson, continue to contribute as best he can off the ice and hope he can eventually get back in the lineup.
It must be hard.