With the Washington Capitals over the salary cap already and a new deal for restricted free agent defenseman Karl Alzner imminent, it is time to see what he is worth so we know how much salary the Caps will need to move to make room. Alzner made a base salary of $875,000 last season on his entry-level deal, meaning the qualifying offer tendered to him by the Washington Capitals is for at least $918,750. Judging by other young defenseman around the league, Alzner should earn quite a bit more than that as a top-pairing defenseman, likely a 4-year deal worth $2.75 million per season.
#27 Karl Alzner
Alzner is a smooth-skating 6’3, 206-lb defensive defenseman who will turn 23 during training camp this fall. The Vancouver-native rarely takes penalties and is the ideal partner for offensive-minded John Carlson. Alzner was sent back to juniors after being drafted 5th overall in the 2007 Entry Draft, but he made the most of his time with the WHL Calgary Hitmen. He was named team captain, WHL Player of the Year, Canadian Major Junior Defenseman of the Year, and he captained the gold medal-winning Canadian entry at the World Junior Championships, his second consecutive gold. Alzner turned pro in 2008, splitting time between the AHL Hershey Bears and the Caps for the next two seasons, winning the Calder Cup with the Bears both years. Alzner turned made the NHL full-time last season and immediately established himself as a top defenseman in DC. Alzner has a bright career ahead of him and could easily be the target of an offer sheet, something that happened to one of his peers.
The comparable young, similarly sized and experienced defensive defensemen in the NHL are Mike Weber, Luca Sbisa, and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Teammate Jeff Schultz will also be used as a comparable. The stats below will compare their production in their careers at the time their contracts were signed. Note that Sbisa was signed mid-season (3/8/11).
Karl Alzner, Washington Capitals (Age 23 at contract start)
Career Stats: 133 Games Played, 3 Goals, 19 Assists, 22 Points (+11 rating), 34 Penalty Minutes
Playoff Stats: 10 GP, 0-1-1, (-4), 0 PIM
Contract Season: 82 GP, 2-10-12 (+14), 24 PIM and 9 Playoff Games, 0-1-1 (-4), 0 PIM
Previous Season: 21 GP, 0-5-5 (-2), 8 PIM and 1 Playoff Game, 0-0-0 (E), 0 PIM
First NHL Season: 30 GP, 1-4-5 (-1), 2 PIM
Mike Weber, Buffalo Sabres (Age 23)
Contract: 2 years, $1.9 million ($950,000 per season)
Career Stats: 81 GP, 4-16-20 (+22), 102 PIM and 7 Playoff Games, 0-1-1 (-3), 6 PIM
Contract Season: 58 GP, 4-13-17 (+13), 69 PIM and 7 Playoff Games, 0-1-1 (-3), 6 PIM
Previous Season: 7 GP, 0-0-0 (-3) 19 PIM
First NHL Season: 16 GP, 0-3-3 (+12) 14 PIM
Luca Sbisa, Anaheim Ducks (Age 21)
Contract: 4 years, $8.4 million ($2.175 million per season)
Career Stats: 99 GP, 2-13-15 (-13) 79 PIM and 1 Playoff Game, 0-0-0 (E), 2 PIM
Contract Season: 52 GP, 2-6-8 (-6), 37 PIM
Previous Season: 8 GP, 0-0-0 (-1), 6 PIM
First NHL Season: 39 GP, 0-7-7 (-6) 36 PIM and 1 Playoff Game, 0-0-0 (E) 2 PIM
Niklas Hjalmarsson, Chicago Blackhawks (Age 23)
Contract: 4 years, $14 million ($3.5 million per season)
Career Stats: 111 GP, 3-18-21 (+11), 33 PIM and 39 Playoff Games, 1-8-9 (+7), 12 PIM
Contract Season: 77 GP, 2-15-17 (+9), 20 PIM and 22 Playoff Games*, 1-7-8 (+9), 6 PIM
Previous Season: 21 GP, 1-2-3 (+4), 0 PIM and 17 Playoff Games, 0-1-1 (-2), 6 PIM
First NHL Season: 13 GP, 0-1-1 (-2), 13 PIM
*Won Stanley Cup
Jeff Schultz, Washington Capitals (Age 24)
Contract: 4 years, $11 million ($2.75 million per season)
Career Stats: 247 GP, 9-47-56 (+80), 97 PIM and 10 Playoff Games, 0-1-1 (-4), 6 PIM
Contract Season: 73 GP, 3-20-23 (+50**), 32 PIM and 7 Playoff Games, 0-1-1 (-1), 4 PIM
Previous Season: 64 GP, 1-11-12 (+13), 21 PIM and 1 Playoff Game, 0-0-0 (-1), 0 PIM
Previous Season: 72 GP, 5-13-18 (+12), 28 PIM and 2 Playoff Games, 0-0-0 (-2), 2 PIM
First NHL Season: 38 GP, 0-3-3 (+5), 16 PIM
Analyzing the Comparables:
Karl Alzner will certainly earn more money then Mike Weber, who represents the low end of this pay scale. The difference shines through when you consider that Weber played 15:51 per night in the playoffs for Buffalo, effectively their 6th defenseman, while Alzner played 22:44 per night for the Caps, and his 19:33 at even strength effectively made him the #2 defenseman after John Carlson (19:43). Weber is also coming off a $550,000 one year deal, making this contract he just signed his 3rd NHL contract. This would be Alzner's 2nd NHL contract.
Luca Sbisa was effectively Anaheim's 5th defenseman in the playoffs this past season, and while it was not factored into his contract negotiations, it certainly puts his contract in perspective. Alzner is an older, more experienced, and frankly a better defenseman than Sbisa, meaning he will likely get a contract higher than Sbisa's $2.175 million.
Niklas Hjalmarsson represents the top end of the pay scale for a defenseman of Alzner's age and ability, and it is almost an unfair comparison. Hjalmarsson was signed to an offer sheet by the San Jose Sharks, which was matched by Chicago, effectively making this a contract for an unrestricted free agent, which is an entirely different category. Hjalmarsson also had 39 playoff games and a Stanley Cup on his resume, and was the #3 defenseman in even-strength ice time during that Cup run, meaning Alzner should not expect to top $3 million on his deal.
Jeff Schultz also is in a different category, as he was older and more experienced when he signed his deal. Schultz is a very interesting comparable in no small part because he was in Alzner's exact position last year, coming off a a successful year as the Caps' top-pair, shut-down defenseman, the #2 defenseman on the Caps in terms of even-strength ice time in the playoffs in 2010. Schultz, though, led the league with a +50 rating that season, and had 100+ more NHL games on his resume to go along with a gaudy +80 rating. Schultz and Alzner were teammates on the Calgary Hitmen from 2003-06, both were Caps' 1st round picks, both won the Calder Cup with the Bears, and both are steady, stay-at-home defensemen. Schultz is much taller while Alzner is much faster, but they have similar skill sets otherwise.
The biggest thing Alzner has going for him besides his pedigree and ability on the ice is character. He has been a leader throughout his career, he is an unassuming player with an earnest desire to learn and improve. He also has the defining mark of a great hockey player in making the players around him better. A 4-year contract almost seems to be a foregone conclusion here, as the other defensemen of Alzner's ability all seem to get 4 years. His durability, character, and speed make him a safe candidate for a longer contract, though.
Alzner compares favorably to Jeff Schultz, and he has more potential with his speed, but has not had the experience (both positive and negative) that Schultz had before his big contract. It is not likely Caps General Manager George McPhee will award a contract to Alzner higher than Schultz's $2.75 million per season, which could upet the salary balance in the locker room. If Alzner's agent gets a couple of offer sheets, Alzner could easily get a contract for $3 million per season, as that is closer to what Alzner could earn on the open market. If offer sheets don't come into negotiations, a $2.75 million per season contract matching Schultz's seems likely, as McPhee is unlikely to be able to get away from the comparison to Schultz and, by extension, the obvious aspect that Alzner has much more upside, even if he hasn't produced the same offense as some of his peers. If Alzner were to take a hometown discount, don't expect him to drop below $2.25 million per season, as Sbisa's deal will likely be the point he won't go below.