With the unfortunate setback of Boston Bruins center Ryan Spooner’s concussion this week, another door of opportunity has opened for Austin Czarnik.
The undrafted free agent and former Miami University Redhawks captain had spent most of the season with the big club after a standout rookie pro campaign a year ago with the Providence Bruins. The Michigan native made the big club out of camp before taking a cheap hit late in the preseason that caused him to miss a little time up front.
“I know what he’s going through,” Czarnik said of Spooner’s situation after the Boston morning skate prior to their Wednesday night game against the flailing Detroit Red Wings. “He said it’s a mild one, but still- it’s a concussion, so you just gotta be careful with it. I felt good when I came back, but I felt like I was 100 percent, but maybe my cognitive (ability) wasn’t all there. Just moving back and forth, but it felt great. But when I got on the ice, it was a little bit different, so I think I may have rushed it just a little but it just takes time.”
Czarnik has always been a high-end skill player with the hockey sense and creativity to be an offensive force, but his lack of size resulted in a lot of disappointments throughout his progression up the developmental ladder.
“For me, it was hard growing up because I was cut from every triple-A team pretty much because I was too small,” said Czarnik. “It was a hard process for me, but I always had at least one person who believed in me throughout my whole career pretty much. They believe in me right now, and I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to show what I have again in Boston.”
Czarnik hinted at maybe being a little too conservative in his approach, which may be a reflection of his reticence to try higher-risk plays as a rookie. Or, it could have been a veiled reference to his only NHL coach to date (at least until Bruce Cassidy takes his place behind the Boston bench tonight), Claude Julien, and his reputation for a lower-risk, team defense system.
“I’ve been simple so much this year- I think I can start trying to make plays,” he said. “Realize what plays I have on the ice to make and not just try to get the puck in, things like that. So, that’s what I’m going to try and focus on and just try to create space out there for my linemates.”
As a productive player at the USHL and NCAA levels, it seems more than a little surprising in hindsight that not one of the 30 NHL clubs took a late-round flyer on Czarnik. However, what happened in the past is of little consequence, as these days, with the Second Chance Saloon open for business in terms of the annual NCAA free agent derby that occurs each spring as college hockey seasons come to an end, he was able to parlay his talent and production into an opportunity with the Bruins, much like another Michigander in Boston teammate Torey Krug, was able to do.
“Obviously, it’s every kid’s dream to get drafted, so I was a little hurt when I didn’t,” he said. “The second year, I didn’t even get picked up either out of college, so I was kind of hurt by that time, but I realized I just had to prove them wrong again, so that was the main thing and I’m happy it happened because I had options to pick from and things like that. So- any kid that doesn’t get drafted, it’s probably the best thing that can happen to you because you’ll have teams that want you if you work hard. That’s the biggest thing- you can just pick from your hand, so it was a cool feeling.”
Czarnik credited a former college teammate, since departed from the Bruins organization in forward Reilly Smith, with helping him to decide on Boston over the other suitors he had in the spring of 2015. He said that the tradition surrounding the B’s and the chance to play in a city like this one were major factors in his decision, one that seems to have paid off for the time being, as he is living his NHL dream with another opportunity to stick after being returned to Providence late last month.
“I think we’re just going to try and stay on the same page in terms of what they’ve been on,” Czarnik said of his slotting onto the third line in hopes of recapturing some of the magical chemistry he had with left wing Frank Vatrano in Providence last year as rookies. “Obviously, Spooner’s a really good player; I’m going to try and fill some of his shoes, but it’s going to be hard because he always makes plays. We just want to keep the train rolling and go from there.”
After an NHL stint on IR, Czarnik was sent down to Providence where he played five AHL games before being summoned to take Spooner’s place in the lineup. He talked about the importance of getting his conditioning back under control after missing three weeks and knocking the rust off of his timing and overall game with a lot of minutes at even strength, on the power play and killing penalties. He’s glad he had the chance to get some games in rather that have to regain his timing in NHL action.
Czarnik’s familiarity with former Providence head coach Cassidy will certainly help with the transition in his first game with the latter in charge of the Boston roster.
“When he’s playing his game, he’s got good energy; he’s on the puck, he’s creating turnovers with his foot speed, his stick, his hockey IQ and he’s making plays- him and Vatrano certainly have some chemistry,” Cassidy told assembled media during his post-skate presser. “He’s been good in situational hockey for us. He’s PK work’s been pretty solid. The power play…we’re going to move him around…he was up high before and I think he’s ideally better suited to be making plays around the net so he’s going to get to play in all situations and hopefully, he’s ready to respond. He’s had some experience up here; he should know what to expect in that regard, and he’s healthy.”
When asked by your TSP founder about Czarnik’s progression from rookie pro to where he is now, Cassidy opened up with more thoughtful and detailed commentary:
“His understanding of the game is better- he’s playing against men. The American League is certainly big guys, energetic guys, but they’re not men yet and as a smaller guy, he’s had to learn what he can get away with and what he can’t. This time around, we’re going to find out what he’s learned in that area. Like a lot of players, it’s the reps- getting to play with and against top-end, world-class talent, and he’s a smart guy; he’s got good hockey IQ. He thinks the game well, so it has to be one of his best assets. That, and a high motor- we’ve talked about that. If he’s not playing with a high motor, his effectiveness will decrease. And so those are the things we’re looking for in him. We expect an energy guy, using his speed…He’s got to use it and he’s got to use it all the time. I think that’s how he stays in this league.”
Cassidy declined to confirm whether Czarnik will need to make his bones at center or wing to remain in the NHL, saying that he thinks the youngster is better at center but has the versatility to play all three forward positions and has been moved around to find the best matchups.
“The jury is still out,” Cassidy said to close out his comments on Czarnik’s fit up the middle in the NHL going forward, but the by the gist of his comments, the interim head coach will give him every opportunity to try and establish himself there.
Austin Czarnik’s 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)