PROVIDENCE — Assessing Austin Czarnik is a matter of interpretation.
Through one lens, the slight and smiley 5-foot-9-inch, 160-pound Czarnik (the truth of his dimensions being somewhere between those numbers) appears a beanie and scarf short of pulling double espressos at a third-wave coffee shop.
Through another, the spirited 23-year-old center is the Bruins’ full-time AHL player closest to competing for an NHL job next year. The latest proof was Czarnik’s two-goal, one-assist performance in Providence’s season-ending 5-4 double-overtime loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on April 24 at Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
“He’s a very competitive guy,” said Providence coach Bruce Cassidy after the game. “He’s got a lot of pride. He showed it tonight.”
In 68 games this season, Czarnik had 20 goals and 41 assists to lead the AHL in rookie scoring. Those 61 points were no aberration. In four seasons at Miami University, Czarnik totaled 169 points, fifth most in school history. In 2009-10, he had 54 points for the National Team Development Program’s Under-18 team, trailing only Brandon Saad, Nick Shore, and Matt Nieto, all NHLers.
Czarnik’s size is the only reason he went undrafted and was left to sign a two-year, entry-level contract with the Bruins. It is a legitimate concern. If, say, John Tavares turns his back and applies his down-low grind game against Czarnik, the odds are in the Islander captain’s favor.
In the first two games of the AHL playoffs, Czarnik didn’t score against the heavier and older Penguins. The P-Bruins lost both games.
Said Cassidy before Game 3, “He’s getting a bit of an eye of the different level that it goes to right now with the matchups and how he’s going to have to play against — it doesn’t matter who it is — bigger men. Because generally, they’re all bigger than him. There’s not as much room. So you’re going to have to hang onto the puck and make strong plays.”
For Czarnik, the three-and-out postseason was a sampling of what to expect in the NHL. Opposing centers will be stronger, faster, and more experienced. Defensemen will close gaps and limit his time handling the puck. In the defensive zone, teams will target him. Ryan Spooner, the Bruins’ third-line center, learned this the hard way in the last third of the season.
But Czarnik’s bosses should be optimistic when projecting his potential. The anxiety he produces in opponents when he has the puck outweighs the concern he causes for his coaches when he’s chasing it.
Czarnik is fast, quick, creative, and smart. He plays with pace. He’s strong on the puck. He knows how to get open. When his team needs results, Czarnik wants the puck.
In Game 3, Czarnik was quiet in the first period. The Penguins led, 2-0. During the first intermission, Cassidy challenged Czarnik and his go-to teammates.
In the second period, after Wilkes-Barre/Scranton took a three-goal lead, Czarnik triggered Providence’s rally. He helped keep a down-low cycle going. Once Alex Khokhlachev settled the puck on the right-side wall, Czarnik drifted to a soft spot at the left circle and tapped his stick on the ice.
Czarnik received Khokhlachev’s feed and fired a riser over goalie Casey DeSmith’s glove for Providence’s first goal.
In the third period, Czarnik stripped a puck to help Providence go on the attack. As Khokhlachev drew attention on the right side, Czarnik darted up between the circles, pivoted, and opened for a one-timer. Khokhlachev set up the right-shot Czarnik, who hammered home the tying goal with 3:59 remaining in regulation.
Providence lost after Brett Bellemore fell down and Jake Guentzel beat Jeremy Smith at 13:52 of double OT. But Czarnik was Providence’s best performer, just as Cassidy predicted he would be.
“I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t our best player tonight or one of our best,” Cassidy said before Game 3. “He tends to respond well and rises to challenges. He’s one of those guys whose compete level will go up.
“He’s got a pretty easy disposition and easygoing that way. On the ice, he doesn’t get flustered. But there’s an inner drive there that I would expect to see more of tonight.”
This past season, fellow first-year pros Frank Vatrano (39 games) and Noel Acciari (19) finished the year with the varsity. Czarnik was up for just one practice March 30 on an emergency basis.
Czarnik does not have Spooner’s top-end speed or touch. But his skill and competitiveness should allow him to push Spooner and join Vatrano and Acciari as full-time NHLers in 2016-17.
The Bruins are desperate on defense. Spooner is one of the tradeable assets because of his offensive explosiveness and $950,000 contract. If the Bruins consider shaping their fourth line into a skilled unit, Czarnik would have his hand up to center the group.
“I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it,” Czarnik said of competing in the AHL within his skill set. “I’ve got to play smarter against bigger guys.
“I’ve got to wait for my time to attack. When the time is right, then I can go in and just do that. I have to contain a lot. Overall, I think I’ve developed a lot this year.”
Size isn’t everything. Czarnik can apply his positioning, timing, and stickwork to make up for physical limitations. Tyler Johnson once faced the same issues. Johnson is now Tampa Bay’s No. 1 center. The Lightning believed in Johnson. The Bruins could soon do the same with Czarnik.