There's no denying that Miami's Austin Czarnik is one of the top players in all of college hockey. Last season, he was one of ten finalists for college hockey's top individual honor, the Hobey Baker Award. This year, he's been even better. With 15 points in his first 10 games of the season, he's currently tied for third in the country in scoring.
But despite his success at the college level, Czarnik hasn't drawn a lot of attention as a professional prospect. He was passed over in the NHL Draft, making him an NHL free agent. The reason for this is pretty clear: Czarnik is listed at just 5'9" 150 lbs. by Miami. Does Czarnik have what it takes to beat the odds and make it in the NHL?
I watched Czarnik up close on November 7th, when Miami traveled to St. Cloud for a series with the then-unbeaten Huskies. Miami ended up winning the game 2-0, and Czarnik was credited with an assist. Here's the box score from that night's game. But a box score can only tell you so much about how a player played. Here's a deeper look at what Czarnik did on Friday night.
The first thing that stands out about Czarnik is just the sheer amount of ice time he logs for Miami. On Friday night in St. Cloud, Czarnik started 19 shifts at even strength, five shifts on the power play, and five shifts while short-handed. That's roughly 22 to 23 minutes of total ice time. He played on the top power play unit and top penalty kill. Miami also tried to increase his ice time by skating his line on both sides of a TV timeout if Miami had an offensive zone face-off coming out of the break(something that would pay off later in the game). At even strength, his line was up every three shifts, though once Miami extended their lead to 2-0, they rotated through all four lines to give him a little rest for Saturday.
When he's out of the ice, Czarnik is always very involved in the play. By combining his quick skating with excellent anticipation and hockey sense, Czarnik is excellent on puck support. He turned a lot of one-on-one battles along the boards into two-on-one battles and usually came out of the scrum with the puck.
Another aspect I like about Czarnik's game is the way that he brings the puck up the ice, especially breaking out of his own end on the power play. Not only does Czarnik bring the puck up the ice with good speed, which most any player can do, but he always has his head up, analyzing what is in front of him, and looking for a teammate to fire a quick pass to.
The bottom line is that some guys can skate fast if that is their primary focus. For Czarnik, being that fast is easy enough that he can start thinking two or three steps ahead of everyone else.
At his size, obviously Czarnik isn't going to be winning a lot of one-on-one physical battles along the boards. But one thing his small frame does allow him is a very low center of gravity, which allows him to turn and spin on a dime. Generally, this is really helpful. On one play in the first period, Czarnik skated into the corner in the offensive zone along with a St. Cloud defender of comparable size. Czarnik arrived at the puck a split-second before the St. Cloud defender, and was able to make a quick spin to avoid being pinned along the boards, and eventually created a scoring chance out of the play. If he can get in and out of corners with the puck before defenseman are able to hit him, that would go a long way in neutralizing his size deficits.
On the downside, he might be a little too comfortable spinning from his forehand onto his backhand with the puck. He tried this a number of times in the game, including on a 3-on-2 rush where he mishandled a pass in the slot, and ended up firing off a weak backhand shot at goal, and a few other times where he tried spinning backhand pass to teammates. It's a highlight reel play if it works, but it has such a low success rate that it seems more like a bad habit.
It's worth pointing out that Czarnik is the captain, and pretty clear leader of his team as a junior. As far as attitude on the ice, there was one play in the first period when he was pretty clearly taken down on a rush into the St. Cloud zone that the officials missed, and Czarnik chose to have a few words for the official while the play went back the other way, but otherwise, he doesn't get himself involved in much extra-curricular non-sense.
Czarnik is just average in the face-off circle. On the year, he's an even .500 in the circle with 119 wins and 119 losses. On Friday night, he was slightly below that with 8 wins and 11 losses, but won an extremely important offensive zone face-off in the third period, when his clean face-off win back to Riley Barber set up Miami's second goal, which essentially iced the game.
On the night, Czarnik had 7 of a team total 54 shot attempts. He had one shot on net, three shot attempts blocked by the defense, and three shots that missed the net. On the power play, he had a shot blocked the top of the circles, a shot blocked from the hash marks, and a shot from the half boards that missed the net. While short-handed, he had one of his best goal-scoring chances on a shot that just missed the net from the top of the prime scoring area. He's definitely much more of a playmaker than a big shooter.
All that data brings us back to the original question of: Does Austin Czarnik have a chance to play in the NHL? I would say that I came away from this game more convinced that he can than I previously was.
For all his offensive production at the college level, he doesn't seem to project as top six scoring forward at the NHL level, but could still provide some value to a third or fourth line. He doesn't play a very physical game, but he plays hard enough in all three zones that he should never be a liability on the ice. His ability to read the ice and get himself into position to make plays is NHL-caliber, and should be enough to get him a serious shot at becoming an NHL regular.