More Than Meets the Eye to Minor Kings – Canadiens Trade?

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When the Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings exchanged a pair of prospects earlier this week, with Steve Qualier joining the Kings Franchise, and Robbie Czarnik moving to the Habs, most looked at it as an inconsequential deal.  On the surface they are right, lets face it, these are two 24-year-old players, 2008 draft picks, who appear to be busts.  They have both been playing fourth line minutes in the AHL this season (with an ample amount of press box time sprinkled in) and they each have just five points.  To think that either will even get a single NHL game in their careers looks like a long-shot at best at this point, as neither player can even make an impact in the AHL.  And so some jokes were made on twitter and everyone moved on.

However, what if there is more to the deal than what we can see on the surface?  What if we are to look a little deeper into the player Marc Bergevin acquired?

Every spring, NHL teams scramble to sign the best undrafted players out of the NCAA.  Some of these players have gone on to have NHL success, such as guys like Danny DeKeyser, J.T. Brown, Dustin Penner, and Tyler Bozak in recent years.  The players are so coveted because they are “almost free” assets.  They don’t cost a draft pick, teams don’t need to give up another player in a trade, the only investment is the relatively small (by NHL standards) entry-level contract and a slot in every team’s 50 contract reserve list.  With this low cost/potentially high reward type of player available competition for these free agents is fierce, and the fact remains that nearly every NHL team will offer similar contract terms due to the CBA and Entry-Level Contract System.

In this environment, teams need to do something to differentiate themselves from the rest in order to sign the player they covet.  Last spring it was said that all 30 teams made pitches to Danny DeKeyser, and he eventually choose the Detroit Red Wings.  One of the reasons was that DeKeyser grew up a Red Wings fan, another was an immediate opening on the Detroit blue line, and a third was that his former coach was an assistant with the Wings.  All of this combined to make Detroit the destination of choice for DeKeyser and things have worked out beautifully for the Wings.  He has stepped up and almost immediately made himself a valuable addition at the NHL level.  Sure he is unlikely to ever be an elite player in the NHL, but so few of these college free agents ever are.  This is not about getting a superstar, this is about getting a player who can contribute to your team, and DeKeyser certainly does that.

Now thats all fine and dandy, but where does Wednesday’s trade fit in? One of the top free agents in this year’s class is Austin Czarnik who is in his junior season with the Miami-Ohio Redhawks.  He was a player that many teams pursued last year, but he ultimately decided to stay in school for one more season.  Here is what I wrote about him in my NCAA NCHC Preview in October:

Austin Czarnik, Centre, Miami RedHawks: With 37 points in 40 games as a Freshman, and 38 points in 40 games as a Sophomore, all while playing for Miami in the competitive CCHA conference, there is little doubt that Czarnik has offensive skills. However, generously listed at 5’9″ and 160 lbs, size has always been a concern for him, and is the main reason he has gone undrafted, as his offensive skills were apparent with both the US National Team Development Program, and the the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL during his junior career. Czarnik has the skating ability, the hands, and the shooting ability to put up points. However what really sets him apart is his outstanding playmaking ability and vision. Another player who will be highly sought after when he leaves school.”

As for an update, Czarnik has been everything I anticipated and more. He’s really taken his game up another level this season, and has 10 goals and 31 points in 23 games. He’s been an absolutely unstoppable offensive dynamo for the RedHawks and at this point, I believe he will be amongst the most sought after free agents in this class, if not the most sought after guy. NHL teams have been scouting RedHawks games, and have certainly gotten an eyeful of his talent.

Now before all the Habs fans complain about another small forward.  Lets remember that this is a player who costs the team nothing but money (and a relatively small amount at that).  The Hamilton Bulldogs have had issues scoring goals for two years now, and one of those issues is that they just are not strong at centre.  A dynamic playmaker like Austin Czarnik would immediately step in and fill a hole on a secondary scoring line for the Bulldogs, and maybe just maybe he could develop into something more for Montreal.

So where does this week’s trade come in? Well Robbie Czarnik is the cousin of Austin Czarnik. Now this is all just speculation, but a good report from Robbie about the Habs organization, could help in the courting of Austin. The attractiveness of starting your professional career in the AHL, playing with a family member should not be overlooked. This certainly wouldn’t be the first time that family relationships have been used as a lure to sign a college free agent, as we have seen it occur with players players such as when Billy Sweatt signed with the Vancouver Canucks due to the presence of Lee Sweatt in the organization. Luring these college free agents is difficult and since every NHL team is offering virtually the same entry-level contract, other factors become the deciding choice for these players. The presence of a friendly face, and family member in the organization certainly can’t hurt the Habs should the team decide to pursue Austin Czarnik after his NCAA season is done.


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