There is only one reason for debate regarding Austin Czarnik’s varsity status for 2016-17. If roller-coaster operators didn’t have to give the 5-foot-9-inch, 160-pound center a close look before waving him through, Czarnik already would be hunting for Boston housing.
Czarnik has produced at every level. He was nearly a point-per-game player as a Providence rookie last season (20-41—61 in 68 games). Czarnik scored 169 points in 159 career games at Miami University. In 2009-10, Czarnik (22-32—54) was tied with Matt Nieto (28-26—54) as the No. 3 scorer on the National Team Development Program’s Under-18 team, trailing only Brandon Saad and Nick Shore.
This fall, a confluence of events has helped the 22-year-old Czarnik stick up top instead of being among the early southbound wave to Providence. Czarnik has played up to his pedigree, scoring one of the goals in a 4-3 preseason loss to Montreal on Tuesday. Frank Vatrano, projected to be a top-six wing, is out because of foot surgery. Ryan Spooner, who was told he’d begin camp in the middle, played left wing against Montreal in the spot that Vatrano could have occupied.
The Bruins’ most pressing issue is to determine how Czarnik and Spooner will best fit for the season opener. As of now, they’re studying one creative solution: Spooner as No. 2 left wing and Czarnik as the third-line center. Both experiments show a team willing to shelve previous prejudices.
Spooner is playing out of position, but could do well alongside David Krejci and David Backes. Czarnik is doing what he’s done everywhere – skate and score and open eyes that would otherwise look the other way.
“I’m not making comparisons here,” coach Claude Julien cautioned. “But you look at [Tyler] Johnson in Tampa, he’s a small player, but he’s had real good success. Czarnik, right now, is showing he can be one of those guys that can have success just with his speed, intelligence, and how fast he is. This is where we’re going to have to have a look at these guys. The other part of that decision too is, ‘Are they going to be able to sustain that pace?’ You’ve got to give those guys a chance. Right now, he’s giving us all the reasons in the world to give him a real good look.”
Johnson is Czarnik’s closet comparable, being an undersized, right-shot, offense-first center. In Johnson’s first pro season as a 21-year-old, he scored 31 goals and 37 assists for 68 points in 75 games for Norfolk, Tampa Bay’s former AHL affiliate.
Previous dismissals of Czarnik – 30 teams passed on drafting the pivot – have been because of his size. Coaches and general managers are not keen on devoting roster spots to lightweights who cede the puck and play helplessly on defense. But Czarnik does too many good things with the puck to train excessive critical eyeballs on what he does without it.
So as Czarnik’s gained his coaches’ trust as the third-line center between Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes, he’s also allowed them to shift Spooner, formerly in the No. 3 hole, to the wing.
The Bruins have spent several months plugging names into the second-line spot next to Krejci. The process started with Jimmy Vesey, a pursuit that fizzled after the Harvard graduate said yes to the Rangers. The bosses then considered Vatrano, the shoot-first wing who scored 36 goals in 36 AHL games last year and added eight strikes for the big club. But they had to erase Vatrano’s name from their boards after his untimely injury.
For now, Spooner and Danton Heinen are the leading candidates to line up on Krejci’s left flank. Heinen, however, is a rookie. Playing second-line minutes would be a tough ask for a player with just four games of pro experience.
Spooner prefers center. His employer told him he would start camp in the middle.
But circumstances have changed to the point where Spooner, despite his shortcomings on the wall and in defensive-zone coverage, is one of the team’s best options on the wing. It’s where he can play top-six minutes, unleash his straight-line speed, rip off his snappers, and take advantage of Krejci’s creativity and Backes’s bull-like approach. This is a contract year for Spooner. Receiving Krejci’s dishes could be good for his statistics.
“I’m happy to play there. It doesn’t really matter to me,” Spooner said of playing left wing. “I’ve said before that I prefer to play center. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want to play wing. I’m just more comfortable in the middle of the ice just because I’ve played there my entire life and I know all the little things. Wing’s going to take a little bit of time to adjust to. We’ll see what happens.”
The team’s primary concern is Spooner’s strength on the boards. It’s not easy for any wing to pick a rimmed puck off the wall with an angry defenseman pinching down the boards. But Spooner can play rough when needed. During a three-on-three drill on Wednesday, Spooner sent Colin Miller flying with a shoulder check. After practice, Spooner’s teammates were still buzzing about the wipeout.
At least both player and team are considering different things. It never hurts to try.
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Kevan Miller did not practice Wednesday. Julien said he was being evaluated after being hit with a deflected Andrei Markov shot on the left leg Tuesday . . . Brian Ferlin was sidelined with a lower-body injury . . . World Cup participants Backes, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Christian Ehrhoff, and Brad Marchand were given the day off.