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What To Expect From Alzner In 2008-09

Now that Karl Alzner is signed, the question on everybody's mind is how much of an impact can he make for the Caps next year? Vogs takes a look at the recent history of rookie blueliners, noting the following (links added):
Last season, five rookie defensemen played in 70 or more NHL games while averaging 20 or more minutes per night: Atlanta’s Tobias Enstrom (24:28), Edmonton’s Tom Gilbert (22:11), Los Angeles’ Jack Johnson (21:41), Vancouver’s Alexander Edler and Dallas’ Matt Niskanen. All five of those defensemen were older last season than Alzner will be in 2009-10. All five also took different developmental routes to the NHL than Alzner has to date.

Enstrom and Edler are both European, although Edler did play junior hockey in the CHL. Gilbert, Johnson and Niskanen came through the U.S. collegiate ranks. Enstrom and Johnson are the only two of the five who bypassed the minors en route to the NHL.

In 2006-07, San Jose’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic was the only rookie NHL defenseman who played in more than 70 games while averaging 20 or more minutes per game. Vlasic was several months younger than Alzner will be during his rookie season. He skated an average of 22:11 for the Sharks as a first-year NHLer.

In the season immediately after the lockout, five rookie rearguards skated an average of more than 20 minutes a night over 70 or more regular season contests: Chicago’s Duncan Keith (23:45), Anaheim’s Francois Beauchemin (23:09), Phoenix’s Zbynek Michalek (22:49), Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf (21:43) and the Rangers’ Fedor Tyutin (20:33). [Note: Pittsburgh's Ryan Whitney played 68 games and averaged 23:49 per contest, Chicago's Brent Seabrook played 69 games and averaged 20:01 per, and Phoenix's Keith Ballard played 82 games and averaged 19:58 per game.]

Among the members of the class of 2005-06, only Phaneuf made the jump straight from junior hockey to the NHL as Vlasic did and as Alzner will be attempting to do.
That's 13 blueliners in the last three years who have hit the 70/20 split (including the three guys I tacked on that just missed). Out of how many, you ask? I'll keep it simple and only include rearguards that played 26 games in their "rookie" season (since that would, more or less, make them Calder ineligible for the following year), giving us... 79. So since the lockout, just over 16% of rookie defensemen who played 26 games played in 68 or more and got 19:58 minutes or more per game.

But do the Caps need Alzner to step in and play 70 games and 20 minutes a night? They had three guys do it last year - Mike Green, Tom Poti and Shaone Morrisonn - and will surely hope that that trio repeats that feat (and perhaps is joined by Jeff Schultz, who was 72/18:05 in 2007-08). More likely, should he make the team, the Caps will need 15-18 minutes per night out of Alzner - the same amount (and in some cases, the same minutes) that guys like John Erskine, Milan Jurcina and Schultz averaged last year.

Relaxing the requirements to include rookie blueliners over the past three seasons who stepped in and played 68 games and 15 or more minutes a night opens the field up a bit. Last year, for example, it adds Marc Staal (80/18:58) and Erik Johnson (69/18:11) to the list, in 2006-07 it brings in Ladislav Smid (77/19:14), Ian White (76/18:31), Johnny Oduya (76/18:30), Matt Carle (77/18:08), Lasse Kukkonen (74/17:06) and Mike Green (70/15:29), and in 2005-06 we add Chris Campoli (80/18:32), Andrej Meszaros (82/18:10), Ryan Suter (71/17:21) and Paul Ranger (76/17:07). Updating the percentage, then, since the lockout, just under 32% of rookie defensemen who played in 26 games played in 68 or more and got 15 minutes or more per game.

All of this is just a long-winded way of saying that, based on these stats (which don't take into account things like "talent" or "potential"), if Alzner plays in 26 games, he's got about a 1-in-3 chance of sticking and being able to do what's likely to be asked of him, at least from a games and minutes standpoint. That number includes players who were mid-season call-ups who obviously didn't get a chance to play in 68 games, so the "1-in-3" is a little misleadingly low (Rink Intern - figure out what percentage of players broke camp with the team and played 68 games), so the next question is "will he make the team?"

Of the 65 defensemen taken in the 2006 Entry Draft, three played in 2007-08, with only Erik Johnson playing more than 16 games. In 2005, 85 blueliners were drafted and so far 18 have made their NHL debuts, nine of whom have played more than 40 games. And in 2004, there were 87 defensemen taken, 22 of whom have seen NHL action and only 11 of whom have played 40 NHL games. Boil that all down and you have 237 defensemen drafted between 2004 and 2006, 18.1% of whom have gotten into an NHL game and 8.9% who have played in more than 40 games.

But many of those guys will never see an NHL game without buying a ticket, so let's look at the guys with the pedigrees - the first rounders. Four of 2004's nine first round defensemen have played more than 40 NHL games, three of 2005's 12 have, and one of 2006's nine has. That's 8-for-30 (27%) of blueliners drafted in the first round between 2004 and 2006 who have played 40 NHL games. That number goes up to 57% when you look only at top ten picks, but the point is, you've heard that defensemen take longer to develop. Believe it.

So if Alzner does make the Caps this year and plays in 70 games, what kind of numbers can we expect? Looking at some recent top ten picks who skipped the AHL, Phaneuf (9th overall, 2003) went from the WHL to the NHL and debuted with an 82-game/20-goal/29-assist season, Jack Johnson (3rd overall, 2005) went straight from the University of Michigan to the NHL and had a 74-game/3-goal/8-assist season for the Kings last year, and Erik Johnson (1st overall, 2006) went straight from the University of Minnesota to the show and had a 69-game/5-goal/28-assist season last year.

The bottom line (and if you're still reading, you probably need a hobby) is that making the jump from defensive prospect to NHLer often - but not always - takes some time. We've heard that Karl Alzner is NHL-ready, and there's little reason to doubt that. And if he does make the Caps in the Fall (and there are external-to-Alzner factors at play here, such as Brian Pothier's health, Steve Eminger's status vis a vis chez bow-wow, Milan Jurcina's lack of development, etc.), there's no reason to think he won't be able to contribute... how does 71 games, 3 goals, 14 assists and 16 minutes a night sound? Sounds realistic to me.