When the Flames signed Austin Czarnik, they reportedly beat out roughly two-thirds of the league in order to acquire his services. Signed for just two years with an annual average value of $1.25 million, it isn’t a particularly glamorous deal, and yet they got him.
One reason? He’s a right-shot centre who can play the wing, and with the Flames’ dismal lack of right shots, he has an easier path to the NHL – fewer guys he has to be better than. This was a factor that helped the Flames land Spencer Foo a year ago, with a key difference: Czarnik already had three years’ worth of pro experience, including NHL time. Being a known commodity helps.
At 25, he doesn’t just fit in with the Flames positionally; he fits their age group, as well. He’s a little older than their other prominent names – a few months older than Johnny Gaudreau, but a few years younger than Mikael Backlund – and though it would be hard to define him as a prospect at this stage of his career, there’s definitely still potential for more within him, especially if he gets the chance the Flames seem to be willing to give him.
There’s potential for points: with 69 points in 64 games he was third in AHL scoring in 2017-18, younger than the two guys ahead of him who already appear to have flamed out of an NHL spot. Czarnik’s 1.08 points per game was second amongst AHLers who spent most of their season in the league, beaten only by Chris Terry, who was one of the two with more raw points.
Not just that, but there’s been interest expressed in using him in all situations, with a potential spot on the powerplay (remember, he’s a right shot!) available, and praise for his penalty killing abilities, as well (most of the Flames’ penalty killers are returning, but for Matt Stajan, fourth in forward kill time; and Garnet Hathaway, who was sixth, and could find himself pushed out of the lineup all together due to added depth).
Czarnik might need powerplay time to put up offensive totals, though, if this past AHL season was any indication. Just 37 of his points – 54% of his offence – came at 5v5, tied for 13th in the league. The 31 points he scored on the powerplay were among the most in the AHL (29 at a standard 5v4 was tied for second most; he also picked up two points at 4v3).
To speak to that penalty killing, though, Czarnik did pick up one shorthanded assist in the AHL this past season.
Via Christian Tiberi and his consistently helpful database, we can pull up a set of AHL forwards who scored over a point per game in their 24-year-old seasons – and then went on to play at least 20 NHL games the following season.
The names are not particularly familiar to the casual fan:
- Kris Beech
- David Desharnais
- Andrew Gordon
- Mark Mancari
- Rich Peverley
- Colton Sceviour
- Jordan Weal
- Brad Winchester
- Mike Zigomanis
Plus another 14 forwards who scored over a point per game in the AHL, but failed to really play in the NHL in any meaningful circumstances the following season.
Gordon and Mancari failed to have much in the way of NHL careers. Beech, Winchester, and Zigomanis all got about a couple hundred games in each, but failed to do much in the way of actual scoring.
Weal, 26, is still something of a work in progress, finding his footing in the big league but proving useful in some capacity. Sceviour, 29, has carved out a spot as a consistent 20-point scorer.
Peverley may have been out of the league for several years now, but he had a number of great seasons; Desharnais found a fair bit of success in Montreal. They may be the best case scenario for Czarnik’s presumptive NHL career.
Czarnik only played 10 games in the NHL in 2017-18, but dressed for 49 in 2016-17. Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract defined him then as a “sheltered forward”, with a low quality of opponent (he wasn’t being sent out to deal with the opposition’s big guns, like Patrice Bergeron or Backlund would be) and a 58.58% offensive zone start.
Czarnik did have a positive corsi rating of 54.44%, but it’s worth remembering the Bruins have generally been a strong team in that area. Relatively, he was a -1.37 – certainly not a dealbreaker, but underwhelming, even if the data is over a year old.
With the Flames, though, one would expect him to remain in that “sheltered forward” situation.
The Flames have plenty of options at centre before Czarnik’s name comes up: Sean Monahan, Backlund, Mark Jankowski, Derek Ryan, Elias Lindholm, Sam Bennett, and Curtis Lazar. Of that group, Lazar is the only one Czarnik could probably realistically usurp (say what you will about Bennett and how he may permanently be a winger now, but he’s still shown more at the NHL level at a younger age, and isn’t devoid of potential just yet).
That turns attention to the right wing, a position the Flames have been pretty desperate in since Jarome Iginla left. There’s James Neal, Michael Frolik, Lindholm, Troy Brouwer, Garnet Hathaway, and Spencer Foo. Those first three aren’t going to be overtaken any time soon, but after them, it’s wide open.
Czarnik is clearly exciting at the AHL level, and has some further potential to be explored, but it’s best to keep in mind as we wait for training camp that he relied on the powerplay a fair bit to score, and was sheltered in the NHL. To that end, he should still have to work hard in training camp, because he isn’t a player who should be guaranteed a spot; he isn’t as can’t miss as Ryan, who was signed the same day, is.
But on a relatively cheap two-year deal for an overlooked player who can clearly perform at a high level of hockey? He’s a low risk, high reward kind of guy, and you can’t really go wrong with that.
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