CALGARY — In the days before free agency last summer, Austin Czarnik found himself sitting at Mike Babcock’s lake house in Michigan. And when you’re with Mike Babcock, what do you do?
You watch hockey, of course.
“He’s a fiery guy,” Czarnik said Monday. “I was getting chills just being there. Just because he loves the game so much and he’s such a good coach and he knows how to win. It was a cool experience.
“He laid out everything for me, he showed me a bunch of clips and things he wants me to work on and things like that.”
It’s worth noting the 26-year-old forward doesn’t play for Babcock. Never has. The Toronto Maple Leafs had identified him as a free-agent target and they put on the full-court press before July 1, losing out to the Calgary Flames.
To hear Czarnik tell the tale now, it sounds like it was a difficult call.
He was a Group 6 free agent fresh off a third-place finish in American Hockey League scoring with Providence and became a hot commodity as a value buy. The Flames sent a delegation to his summer home in Birmingham, Mich., and signed him to a $2.5-million, two-year contract — edging out Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver and Buffalo.
The Leafs, in particular, gave him something to think about.
“It was a tough choice, for sure,” said Czarnik. “I went and met with Babs, so that was a cool experience. Just to see where they saw me and everything they saw with me. What it came down to for me was just where I felt most comfortable.
“Calgary flew in and met with me and I just felt a really good level of comfort with them.”
Czarnik’s experience underscores how aggressively the Leafs approach player recruitment. He had appeared in 59 NHL games total at that point and wasn’t likely to play any higher than their fourth line, but Babcock still put in 1-on-1 face time with him at the same time the organization was chasing John Tavares.
The coach has played a central role in the acquisitions of European free agents Nikita Zaitsev, Calle Rosen and Igor Ozhiganov, among others — watching video of their games and texting with the players ahead of time while also phoning them directly to sell the merits of the organization.
When asked what appealed to him about Czarnik, he said “high hockey IQ.”
“You’re always looking for a guy whose been in a spot that might not have got the chance, that maybe can get to the next level and find a way to be an everyday player that generates offence for you,” Babcock added. “Lots of times you’re wrong, probably the majority of times you’re wrong, but every once and a while you find a guy and that’s what you need. Especially in the cap world, you need to find players that are going to play for cheap.”
Czarnik has been in and out of the Flames lineup this season, but has enjoyed a productive stretch since James Neal went down with an injury in mid-February. He scored four goals in a five-game stretch and had another one against Minnesota wiped out Saturday by a review for goaltender interference.
However, as he looks back upon his decision last summer, he’s content with how things have worked out here in Calgary.
“It’s been ups and downs this year, but you know what? To be on a first-place team in the West, it’s something that you want to be on,” said Czarnik. “I’m happy with my decision and I’ve never regretted it.”