Captials mild-mannered defensemen Alzner, Niskanen are a duo on and off the ice
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The top shutdown pair for the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners consists of two mild-mannered fathers, close to but not yet 30 years old, whose listed mutual interests include domestic beer, pickup trucks, four-wheelers, and frustrating the hell out of opposing forwards. They live three blocks apart in the local suburbs and, as though skating together for the bulk of all 183 Capitals regular-season and playoff games over the past two-plus seasons wasn’t enough, carpool to the rink and airport. “They had chemistry right away,” goaltender Braden Holtby says. “I think that happens when you have two very similar minds.”
There are slight differences, of course. Karl Alzner grew up in Calgary, a city boy who graduated to Canadian junior hockey; Matt Niskanen hails from Mountain Iron, Minn., population south of 3,000, and attended college at Minnesota-Duluth. Alzner shoots left-handed and weighs 219 pounds, Niskanen from the right side at a sleeker 200. During their drives, Niskanen prefers country music while Alzner likes sports talk radio. Alzner describes himself as both “kind of a sucker” and “an easy sell,” particularly concerning household gadgets and items seen on Shark Tank. Niskanen’s frugality, meanwhile, is known well among teammates. “I’ve always said that pretty much every penny he’s made, he’s saved up,” Alzner says of Niskanen, who annually makes $5.75 million. “It’s pretty impressive.”
Equally striking is how the pair has fused into a dependable, two-headed machine, logging more than 2,500 minutes together at five-on-five since Niskanen signed with Washington in July 2014 and the coaching staff separated Alzner from his longtime partner, John Carlson. “All of a sudden it was, Wow,” says Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt. “This is me on the bench, saying, ‘Wow, where did these guys come from?’ They’re my own teammates. You don’t realize that these guys are pretty good at what they do, then they kept doing it over and over and over, and they don’t get beat ever.”
In this speed-first era, NHL systems demand disciplined gap control and quick decision-making from their defensive duos, and Alzner and Niskanen indeed deserve consideration among the best modern shutdown blueliners. Though neither is known for bone-rattling checks, or particular offensive firepower, both regularly thwart 2-on-1s with well-timed stick checks, and have become experts at sparking breakouts with short passes to fool opposing forecheckers. “When I go back and play the puck with those two, it’s a lot easier than anyone else I’ve ever played with,” Holtby says. “They have everything you want in a defenseman as a goalie.”
“It doesn’t seem they’re exerting a whole lot of energy,” Schmidt says, “but once you hit the blue line, guys are skating in mud against them.”
In this way, Alzner and Niskanen’s playing styles reflect their laidback personalities. A few years ago, for instance, Niskanen bought a lake house in Tower, Minn., population 500, having wanted something more remote than Mountain Iron. These days, Alzner and his wife, Mandy, spend their free time woodworking in the garage, making headboards, nightstands, and even a bench. Ask any reporter in Washington: When the dressing room opens after losses, it’s not uncommon to find one or both already waiting to talk.
“Just as patient off the ice as they are on the ice,” Schmidt says. “Everything they do is just…quiet.”
Alzner considers himself a lover of simple pleasures, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. His latest hobby involves using his Big Green Egg grill, though he’s still tinkering the pork shoulder recipe and won’t allow teammates over until it’s perfected. He still wears a NASCAR hat from attending a race three years ago, mostly because it was free. When asked for recent impulse purchases, Alzner offers the following: “A funny keychain that has little tools on it. Flashlights. I love flashlights.”
Upon first moving to Washington, the fifth overall pick in 2007 was surprised to learn that many neighbors hired landscaping companies to maintain their yards, rather than put in the work themselves. “I always wonder what they think when they see me out there, picking the weeds, cutting the grass, edging the lawn to make sure it looks perfect,” Alzner says. “They think it’s funny, but I like to do it. With the life that we live, it’s nice to slow things down and enjoy these things.”
Little did Alzner realize that an even higher gear of relaxation was possible. Until two summers ago, when Niskanen’s seven-year, $40.25 million contract made him Washington’s highest-paid defenseman, Alzner and Carlson were tethered in their deployment, together representing the Capitals’ future on the blue line. Even their tande nickname—Carlzner— rolled off the tongue with ease.
“It had always been John and Karl,” says associate coach Todd Reirden, who oversees the defensemen. “So the plan was to split them up, and improve both of them apart from each other.”
Even entering the 2015-16 season, though, Alzner and Niskanen were still internally viewed as Washington’s second pair behind Carlson and veteran Brooks Orpik. Then Orpik cracked his femur the night before Halloween, and Carlson broke his ankle on Boxing Day. “They were moved up into that matchup, shutdown role, and obviously they excelled beyond anyone’s beliefs to start the season,” Reirden says. “Not very often could I say that we left the rink thinking, man I wish they could’ve played better. They were highly rated and we understand what they bring to our team. We’re certainly lucky to have them.”
Alzner feels the same way. Since Niskanen had spent three-plus seasons under Reirden with the Penguins, he understood the Capitals’ breakout systems better than his incumbent partner. Though his goal, assist and point totals all dipped from Pittsburgh to Washington, Niskanen's impact was obvious elsewhere.
“I think the majority of the first year was him guiding me through it,” Alzner says. “He did a lot for me. The year he had statistically wasn’t as good as the year before. I think a lot of that had to do with giving me more opportunities to get my footing.” For this reason, when asked about their on-ice chemistry, Alzner replies, “I think we’ve played well together because Nisky is so flipping good, to be honest.”
Niskanen indeed evolved into a workhorse for Washington last spring, logging 26:32 in 12 playoff games, but Alzner deserves much credit too. As a 27-year-old in 2015-16, his 21 points matched a career high, his 21:23 average time on ice was a personal best, and last January he broke the franchise record for consecutive games played. (When a local blizzard hit around the same time, neighbors tried to caution Alzner against shoveling snow from his sidewalk, lest the manual labor jeopardize the streak; he ignored them.) His 207 blocked shots also ranked third league-wide, impressive given the 51.0% even-strength shot attempt rate he posted with Niskanen. “I don't think either of us play a super fancy game,” Niskanen says. “I almost don’t have to look and I can send a pass his way and I know pretty much where he is.”
Though Niskanen maintains somewhat of a meaner streak—he has fought seven times in regular-season games to Alzner’s one—and jumps up into the rush more, he also seems to represent Alzner's spiritual equal. After all, this is the defenseman whose teammates in Dallas tricked out the beat-up 2001 Pontiac Sunfire that he called “My Old Girl.” The mellow 29-year-old who once described his younger self as, “the athlete that wore sweatpants and flannel shirts to school every day,” who now explains his wholesale absence from social media as, “My goal is to draw less attention to myself, not more.”
The friend who, if Alzner starts itching to buy another gadget, is liable to say nothing, shake his head, and walk away.
“When he gives you an answer, if you ask him a question, you can tell he’s really thinking about it,” Alzner says. “And I like that a lot. I’m guilty of it sometimes, where I’ll just say something to say it, and I’m not giving enough thought behind it. I’m starting to learn that from him. I do think that we both, in other aspects of life, are very patient with things. We don’t really need to rush anywhere, don’t need to rush our decisions on the ice. I think we’re lucky that it translates well into hockey.”