The constant roster turnover amidst the COVID-19 surge around the NHL has created additional roles for roster hopefuls on the fringe of gaining some extended playing time at the professional level. Enter Austin Czarnik.
The 29-year-old center, who played just four games in a relief role last season for the New York Islanders, has doubled that number of games this season as he’s stepped in for a COVID and injury-impacted team over the first eight weeks of the 2021-22 campaign.
His game isn’t flashy, nor will it jump off the page, but it’s become abundantly clear that the former Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins forward has a knack for being in the right place at the right time regardless of what end of the ice he’s on.
Czarnik has picked up four points (one goal, three assists) in eight games this season, including a vital helper on Anthony Beauvillier’s game-tying third-period goal that forced overtime in the Islanders’ 3-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers on New Year’s Day.
He’s had a minus rating just once in his eight games and has been on the ice for just two goals against in roughly 85 minutes of ice time. That will play in a defensive-first system like that of the Islanders’.
“I feel like I’m a two-way forward so I feel like [my game] fits in pretty nicely,” Czarnik said. “We chip in offensively when we can but we focus so much on defense and just being able to be reliable out there and I feel like we’ve done that. It’s a good system. I like playing in it.”
Couple that with a direct offensive approach that fits into head coach Barry Trotz’s “north-south” preference of style, and Czarnik has impressed.
“We knew that he was a reliable player,” associate head coach Lane Lambert, filling in for Trotz who is away for personal reasons, said on Tuesday. “He’s got quickness, he’s got speed. That’s the biggest thing about him. And the reason why he’s had success is that he’s trustworthy.
“If you watch him in the defensive zone, he’s in the right positions… he’s added elements of speed and a touch of grit. He’s playing well and he’s a guy that has the ability to play in the NHL and we’re pretty happy with the way he’s playing.”
It’s a new lease on life in the NHL for Czarnik, who after playing 54 games with Calgary in 2018-19 saw a combined 12 games in the big leagues with the Flames and Islanders over the next two seasons.
“You just have to focus on what you can control. That’s coming to the rink every day ready to work,” he said. “If you’re not focused on what’s going to happen or if you’ll get sent down… that’ll set you up for the most success.
“Whatever happens, happens and we’re going to do it with a smile on our face.”