Flames at forefront of NHL’s downsizing movement

Calgary Flames' Austin Czarnik scores three times against the Vancouver Canucks, enroute to a 5-2 victory in pre-season action.

They came to see James Neal, they left talking about Austin Czarnik.

And if the pre-season is any indication, the talk for years to come in Calgary will revolve around sub-six-footers like the five-foot-nine, 170-pound Michigan native who stole the show at the Saddledome Saturday night.

While Czarnik’s two-year, $2.5 million deal attracted little attention in Cowtown this summer, it was part of a much larger investment the Flames have been making in smaller players.

Derek Ryan, who carries just 10 more pounds on a five-foot-10 frame, inked a three-year, $9.375 million pact to join a Flames team that already employs the league’s poster boy for petit pucksters, Johnny Gaudreau.

Both free agents were highly-sought-after mighty-mites in a league banking more and more on speed and skill over bangers and brawn.

On Saturday night Czarnik made his debut in Calgary with three goals against Vancouver in a 5-2 win, spurring a surprisingly big pre-season crowd to litter the ice with ball caps saluting the newbie.

Five nights earlier they did the same for local product Dillon Dube, who is not only the talk of the town, but entered the night as the NHL pre-season scoring leader with four goals in three outings.

The 20-year-old native of Cochrane, Alta., who captained Canada to world junior gold last Christmas, is making an impressive case for opening night employment with the big club despite being five-foot-11 and 185 pounds.

Dube, left, celebrates his hat trick. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Indeed, it’s a small world after all in the NHL, where the land of giants is being infiltrated by players taking advantage of an obstruction-free workplace.

“The game has kind of come their way – five years ago a guy like Austin Czarnik probably doesn’t have 26 teams knocking on his door July 1,” said Flames GM Brad Treliving, winner of the unannounced Czarnik Lottery.

“Look at Derek and Austin – first and foremost it’s their mind. Both are real competitive, intelligent and skilled. Austin is a darter. He’s got some real quickness to him. He’s lethal coming off the wall with his shot.”

That shot was on display when he snapped a nifty Matthew Tkachuk drop pass from the top of the faceoff circle that beat Thatcher Demko clean, far side.

“My shot is definitely not my most lethal weapon – I think my passing is probably my best asset,” smiled Czarnik, 25, who will get plenty of power-play time in Calgary after scoring 25 goals and adding 44 helpers in Providence last season.

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In past years many men of his stature became classic tweeners – dominant in the AHL but unable to flourish in the bigs. Czarnik sees his opportunity in Calgary as the perfect environment in which to make a successful jump to a league in which he’s played 59 games.

“I’ve had (this size) my whole life so I kind of know what I need to do every day, working with my speed,” he laughed.

“One of the things I want to focus on is having fun and go with the confidence I had (in the AHL). In the past I’ve been too scared to worry about little things. When I relaxed I was more successful.”

Dube said it’s not lost on him that five or 10 years earlier a lad like him would not have been given a legitimate look up the middle, given his size.

“I’m thankful for the guys before me because some dreams before got crushed just because of their size,” said Dube.

“Obviously I am undersized and I’ve had to deal with that because at that time I was in atom and peewee, so I was close to making teams and just because of my size they didn’t think I could do it.

“You can develop a lot more when you’re battling a lot younger to keep up with the big guys, because some guys bloom pretty early. When you get here you’re ready, you feel like you’ve been doing this your whole life. And now when you get to this stage you start to become a man and you feel a lot more confident – I feel more confident now than I ever have.”

Andrew Mangiapane is another undersized Flames prospect doing well to push for a roster spot despite being five-foot-10 and 180 pounds. Keep in mind, all smaller players are generously listed in NHL media guides.

“I think being undersized is almost an advantage now because the game is going to more speed,” said the 22-year-old who played 10 games with the Flames last year after scoring 21 times in 39 AHL outings.

“You see a lot of guys now breaking into the league and being in the league that are on the smaller side whereas 10 years ago there weren’t many. If you’re fast and quick you can get in and get out. It definitely is an advantage to us. It has changed so I’m definitely grateful.”

The kid in Calgary’s camp who most closely clings to the hope given to miniscule players by Gaudreau is five-foot-seven, 155-pound Matthew Phillips, who is hoping to get a chance to prove his 98 goals in Victoria over the last two years suggest he’s worthy of an NHL taste.

“Especially here there are a lot of examples of those small guys, so just watching and being around them helps – it’s an opportunity,” said Phillips, 20, who said Royals coach Dave Lowry was instrumental in teaching him how to compete as a small player.

“I watch the little habits of Johnny (five-foot-9, 165 pounds) and other guys buzzing around here, and try to follow after them. Austin Czarnik is not much bigger than I am, which caught me off guard. It’s encouraging when you see guys that are a little smaller making it.

“How they call the game now helps, and if you’re a fast player you’re going to get those calls and have a big advantage. You need to know your abilities and how you’re going to win battles because guys like me have to battle a little differently than six-foot-three guys.”

Johnny Gaudreau celebrates a goal. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Ryan knows all about that, having worked his way through the CIS, Austria, Sweden, the AHL and Carolina as an undersized centre. He was arguably the best Flames player in China.

“Eleven or 12 years ago when it was my draft year and the NHL was starting to look at me as a young guy it was the complete opposite – they just wanted big guys who maybe didn’t have as much skill or hockey sense and they drafted him or chose him over myself just because were hoping they could turn him into a hockey player,” said the undrafted Ryan, 31, who said fellow Spokane native Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning was an inspiration at five-foot-8.

“Now, speed and skill are the direction of the new NHL. Your third and fourth lines aren’t filled with big guys trying to intimidate people. It’s guys who can score, are responsible defensively and can contribute all over the ice. The game has changed a lot and it’s continually evolving and that’s what GMs are trying to keep up with.”

Treliving is certainly one of them at the forefront of affording pocket-sized opportunity.

“Certainly in today’s game skill and speed sort of take a precedent over pure size,” said Treliving, who selected five-foot-nine Dmitry Zavgorodniy late in this year’s draft.

“I’d still like to have them all big and skilled and fast, but look around the league and those smaller guys are finding a way to play. We’ve got a few of them but you’ve got to be careful. I still think you need a blend in the league whereas five years ago there was very little chance for them.”

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