Don’t forget about Austin Czarnik. We haven’t seen the 27-year-old forward at the NHL level since he sustained a high ankle sprain in a game against the Florida Panthers on Oct. 24. After two months of recovery, Czarnik has been tearing up the American League ever since and could help fill the team’s lack of right-shot scoring options. Depending on what the Flames do at the trade deadline, Czarnik is an interesting and viable option for the stretch drive.
The story so far
Calgary felt like it was a minor coup when Czarnik opted to sign with them in the summer of 2018. We were told by many, including the Flames, how many other teams coveted Czarnik in free agency, so expectations were high. Unfortunately, Czarnik had trouble finding a regular spot in the lineup and suited up in just 54 games (6G, 12A, 18 PTS) in his first season. In saying that, Czarnik was relatively effective when he did suit up.
Entering this season, the hope was more opportunity might exist for Czarnik. He had a promising preseason and was just starting to round into form prior to the ankle injury in late October. Czarnik had points in three straight on a line with Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund, and had given Calgary’s second power play unit an outside shooting threat. The timing of Czarnik’s injury couldn’t have been worse.
When he was ready to return, Czarnik re-entered a different looking fray. By December, Dillon Dube and Andrew Mangiapane had both established themselves as bona fide top nine NHL forwards. Milan Lucic had started to carve out his everyday role on the Flames. Understandably, the team opted to give Czarnik time in the American League upon his return, but two months later, he’s still in Stockton.
We know Czarnik can score in the AHL, so seeing him light it up with the Heat comes as no surprise. In the season prior to signing with Calgary, Czarnik put up 69 points in 64 games with Providence. The guy has done everything in his power to prove to the Flames he belongs with them. He pushed hard to return from injury, went to Stockton with the right attitude, and has been an offensive leader for them ever since.
Why isn’t he up already?
I’ve asked this question many times and there is only one answer: the salary cap. Czarnik’s $1.25 million cap hit is almost double that of Zac Rinaldo, Buddy Robinson, or Tobias Rieder. It’s unfortunate for Czarnik, but I get it to a certain extent. Calgary has shown a preference to carrying 14 forwards, so keeping players with NHL minimum cap hits allows them more space under the upper limit and, thus, the ability to accrue more daily space ahead of the deadline.
After the trade deadline is a different conversation, however. The salary cap exists until the end of the season, but the 23-man roster cap disappears Monday afternoon. Additionally, accruing daily cap space post-deadline becomes far less important with no more opportunities to add to the roster. If there’s a time to bring Czarnik back into the fold, sometime after Monday is probably it.
Now, with just over $2 million in projected deadline cap space, it won’t be easy to fit Czarnik in if the Flames end up acquiring a top-six forward. General manager Brad Treliving might have to get creative to acquire a player with a cap hit over $2 million regardless. That’s before Czarnik could even be factored in.
On merit, Czarnik is deserving of more time in the NHL than he’s seen this season. He was starting to trend in a positive direction prior to his injury and, since recovering, has been outstanding in Stockton. That said, we know the NHL is as much a numbers game as anything else in a cap world, so Calgary has had to be very deliberate all season.
All I know is the Flames would be well served to give Czarnik some NHL time between now and the end of the season. He’s a right-shot winger, which is something the team is short on, and there’s a decent chance he could give the team more offensive depth in a fight for a playoff spot. The cap ceases to exist in the postseason, which means he is absolutely an option then. In all fairness, though, he deserves a shot before then.