The Flames could improve their forward depth by claiming Austin Czarnik
Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
By Mike Gould1 year ago
If you regularly read this site, you’ll know how strongly we feel about how the Calgary Flames need to improve their forward depth.
Largely thanks to their @Johnny Gaudreau-driven first line, a well-rounded top-four on defence, and shutout king @Jacob Markstrom, the Flames look like a very safe bet to make the playoffs in the Pacific Division.
Still, no team is without its weak points. The Flames have suffered from a lack of secondary scoring this year, with @Mikael Backlund, @Sean Monahan, @Dillon Dube, and (until recently) @Blake Coleman all struggling to finish in the offensive zone.
The Flames’ biggest problem at the forward position rests even below those players. @Brad Richardson, @Tyler Pitlick, and @Trevor Lewis have all struggled mightily at both ends of the ice this season and rank among the league’s least impactful players (regardless of position) at five-on-five play.
Even worse, beefy winger @Brett Ritchie is one of just three NHLers to have played in at least 20 games without registering a single point in the 2021–22 season. The other two are both defencemen. At some point, even the biggest of bodies have to be able to contribute in some way beyond their size.
The Flames are one of the league’s best teams by most underlying metrics and currently lead the Pacific Division (and rank sixth in the NHL) with a plus-32 goal differential through 42 games. However, they’re one of the worst finishing teams in the NHL.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Flames’ 7.65 shooting percentage at five-on-five ranks 21st in the NHL. They fare even worse when taking expected goals into account, placing 26th (ahead of five pretty bad teams — and the Los Angeles Kings) in TopDownHockey’s “goals scored above expected” rankings for the 2021–22 season.
The Flames badly need to add some more skill and scoring to the bottom of their lineup. One of their options is to recall right-handed Stockton Heat forward @Matthew Phillips, one of the best finishers in the American Hockey League who has a career 17.8 shooting percentage and ranks fifth in the league with 18 goals in 34 games this season.
Despite his outstanding AHL production, the 23-year-old Phillips only has one NHL game to his credit through his first four professional seasons. Being listed at 5’8″ and 165 pounds has probably worked against him, but the Flames will never know what they have in Phillips until they give him a legitimate shot.
If they remain reluctant to promote Phillips, the Flames can always look externally for help. On Monday, a familiar face — and a potential upgrade on the likes of Richardson and Ritchie — popped up on the waiver wire.
@Austin Czarnik spent parts of two seasons with the Flames between 2018 and 2020, notching eight goals and 21 points in 62 regular-season games with the team. He also suited up for the Flames’ series-ending loss to the Colorado Avalanche in the 2019 playoffs, replacing a scratched @James Neal in the lineup.
Like Phillips, Czarnik is a right-handed forward who’s on the smaller side. The 29-year-old Detroit product is listed at 5’9″ and 175 pounds by the AHL; he was credited with just 11 hits during his entire tenure with the Flames. Physicality is not part of Czarnik’s game.
What is, then? If you remember Czarnik from the 2018–19 season, you’re likely already picturing him as a small but speedy puck-moving forward who took a regular shift on the Flames’ second power-play unit. According to Natural Stat Trick, Czarnik ranked fifth on that entire team with a 55.31 on-ice expected goals percentage at five-on-five (behind Mangiapane, @Mark Giordano, @Derek Ryan, and @Travis Hamonic).
With Czarnik on the ice, the Flames ended up coming out on top most of the time against other teams’ bottom lines. This season, the Flames’ depth players have struggled to produce while being consistently steamrolled at five-on-five.
Czarnik spent most of the 2019–20 season in the AHL, owing largely to his relatively expensive contract ($1.25 million) and the Flames’ tight salary cap situation. As an unrestricted free agent in 2020, Czarnik signed a two-year deal with the Islanders annually worth $725,000.
That’s right: Czarnik’s current cap hit is actually below the NHL’s league minimum ($750,000) for the 2021–22 season. Pro-rated, he’s $75,000 cheaper than both Richardson and Lewis (and costs $175,000 less than Ritchie).
Czarnik spent the majority of the 2020–21 season with the AHL Bridgeport (scoring 33 points in 32 games) but has seen significantly more NHL ice in 2021–22 on an injury-depleted Islanders team. In 11 games with New York this year, Czarnik has averaged 10:57 and scored five points (two goals, three assists). That’s one less point than Ritchie, Pitlick, and Richardson have collectively managed in 70 games with the Flames this season.
Of course, it’s hard to derive much meaning from such a small sample. It’s hard to challenge the notion that Czarnik is anything but a quadruple-A player at this point — certainly too good for the AHL, but difficult to slot into an NHL lineup. He’s not a top-six forward, and most NHL coaches favour bigger players for their bottom two lines. Flames boss Darryl Sutter is certainly no exception.
But when the bar to overcome is Brett Ritchie, a player with zero points in 21 games, Czarnik suddenly looks more appealing. He’s cheap, he knows the organization, and he brings significantly more offensive upside than Calgary’s current No. 24.
The Flames don’t exactly lack physical players, either. @Milan Lucic, @Trevor Lewis, @Blake Coleman @Nikita Zadorov, @Erik Gudbranson, and even @Matthew Tkachuk would be more than capable of making up for Ritchie’s hits if he were to exit the lineup.
There wouldn’t be a ton of downside to the Flames bringing Czarnik back and giving him a look as their third-line right wing. General manager Brad Treliving still needs to pull the trigger on a more significant move, one that would likely push Ritchie out of the lineup anyway, but having Czarnik fill that 3RW spot would probably be an upgrade in the interim.
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