Truth in lending: When the rumors began circulating last spring that the Boston Bruins were close to signing Miami University captain Austin Czarnik as a free agent, I was skeptical.
It wasn’t that I felt it would be a bad signing given that he is barely 5-foot-8 on skates or that I had many doubts about Czarnik’s overall offensive game as evidenced by his run to being a Hobey Baker finalist as a junior in 2014. Even though his numbers in 2015 were a little down from the season before (he scored six of his 9 goals in the final 10 games of the season), the Michigan native raised his stock at crunch time, picking up his goal production right before and during the NCHC and NCAA tourneys.
No, I just didn’t really believe that the Bruins would aggressively pursue and secure the winning bid for Czarnik’s services, so I wasn’t paying a great deal of attention until it was a done deal. Nearly six months later, I can now unequivocally say: My. Bad.
It’s not like his success at every level is all that surprising…just take a look back in April 2011 at when I and my colleagues at Red Line Report ranked him 6th on a list of 12 USHL players for the 2011 NHL draft and just two spots ahead of him was on Johnny (B.) Gaudreau. And no, the three guys ahead of Gaudreau are nowhere near as good as he turned out to be, so it isn’t like scouting is an exact science.
Here is what our USHL guy (now employed by an NHL team, I would add) had to say about Czarnik then:
Undersized but fast and energetic two-way centre. A dynamic penalty killer. Has developed a reputation as a clutch goal scorer. Has quick hands and 1-on-1 ability. Not a dirty player but can be a pest with his speed and relentless puck pressure- a highly disruptive player.
And…you get the message.
Czarnik and liney Frank Vatrano have been dynamite for the Bruins since the rookie camp fired up a couple of weeks ago. They led the Baby (or is it future?) B’s in scoring at the rookie tournament in Buffalo with three assists (Czarnik) and three goals (Vatrano) in two games. From there, Claude Julien kept them together and they’ve continued to play well in a couple of exhibition contests with the big club.
Czarnik, who turns 23 in December, came out of the USHL first with the U.S. NTDP U17 and U18 teams from 2008-10 and then the Green Bay Gamblers in 2011 without being drafted and went on to a strong collegiate career under coach Enrico Blasi in Oxford, Ohio. He earned the captaincy as a junior and finished his four years in that elite NCAA program with 169 points in 159 games. After fielding multiple offers last spring, he went with Boston, who brought him out to Providence on an amateur tryout agreement (ATO) where he posted a pair of assists in three AHL contests.
With his explosive speed and slippery agility, Czarnik is tough to get a bead on when he’s got the puck and is attacking into the teeth of defenses. He’s gritty and feisty- he won’t shy away from doing the grunt work, even though he’s often overmatched physically and will often come out on the short end of those contests of strength. However, when it comes to smarts and wills, he tends to wheel out from the corners with the puck and can either take to the net himself and score the goal, or find the open man for a quality scoring chance.
Here’s some of the evidence:
And here, he victimizes future B’s teammate Zane McIntyre with a hat trick last season:
With or without the puck, he makes a positive contribution and if only he was a little bigger, Czarnik would already be a household name.
In short, we figured he’d be good, but to have the kind of impact he’s made thus far says a lot about his character and drive. A lot of times, a player with the talent and the “want to” will go on to reach the pinnacle of success in the sport. That’s where Gaudreau has come from, and it’s not a stretch to say that Czarnik might be headed down a similar path. Not comparing the two, because Gaudreau is a bigger talent, but the two have a lot in common given their playing styles and physical attributes.
As the old adage goes- when you’re a big guy in hockey you have to prove that you can’t play…a little guy has to prove he can.
Czarnik has shown himself to be a player thus far at camp. Because of the team’s current makeup at center, it probably is best for him to be sent to Providence where he can play top minutes in the AHL in every situation as opposed to playing behind Boston’s 1-2-3 situation with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Ryan Spooner. However, should the team lose manpower at the position, don’t be surprised to see Czarnik get a look with the big club at some point.
Providence fans had best enjoy the Little Hockey Czar while they can- he might not be the biggest player to ever darken the doorstep of the TDGarden, but with his speed and skill level, it won’t be long before he arrives.