During the offseason, the Flames made several moves in order to bolster their forward depth. One of the less heralded ones was the signing of Austin Czarnik, a 25-year-old with minimal NHL experience but extremely promising AHL results.
Czarnik was a big deal at the time for a couple of reasons: there was a mass bidding war for his services, and he’s a right-shot centre. Being a right shot was of particular importance to the Flames, since their depth on the right side has been, well, shot pretty much ever since they traded Jarome Iginla. Having the most sincere interest in Czarnik – travelling to meet with him in person and boasting of the opportunities he’d get (including on the powerplay) – the Flames won the bid for his services.
Now, 15 games into the season, Czarnik’s usage makes less and less sense. His most common linemates are Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk, two staples of the Flames’ top six. Averaging 13:09 a game, he’s the Flames’ seventh-most played forward during games, behind four point-per-game forwards, top defensive centre Backlund, and James Neal, who has something of a well-earned reputation for putting up a lot of points. He’s eighth in forward powerplay ice time as well, behind those six players, plus Derek Ryan.
… But Czarnik has only played in eight games this season, sitting as a healthy scratch for seven of them to date. He’s expected to draw in against the Ducks Wednesday night, but that might only be because Dillon Dube may not be available after a harsh hit from Duncan Keith into the boards.
Therein lies the bizarre duality of Czarnik’s time with the Flames over the first bit of the season: either he’s good enough to be counted on as a regular contributor (and it should be noted, his play alongside Backlund and Tkachuk has garnered a 69.77% 5v5 CF: yes, it’s Backlund and Tkachuk, but Czarnik has definitely added to what’s been a pretty good line), or he isn’t good enough to play at all, with extremely little in between.
One could point to a fault of his being that he only has three points so far this season, but so does Ryan, while Garnet Hathaway, Mark Jankowski, and Dube only have two points each, so that excuse doesn’t line up; most depth Flames forwards are having trouble scoring. His own 60.92% 5v5 CF is second best on the Flames, behind Backlund. He hasn’t taken any penalties, and has even drawn two. There’s absolutely nothing in any of his numbers to indicate that he should sit, and yet, he’s become the Flames’ most frequent healthy scratch among regulars (i.e. not Dalton Prout, but someone who has at least played semi-often).
So what would you do? If Czarnik can only draw into the lineup due to someone else’s injury, is that the right move regarding him, or should he be playing more? If he should be in the lineup, would that be as a fourth liner, or someone higher up the food chain – or does he not score enough to justify that?
What is Czarnik’s role with the Flames? What should it be, and where does he actually fit in?