"Cap space" is one of the most talked about commodities in today's NHL. Who's got it, who hasn't, how you use it well or (more often) how you use it badly.
It's a conversation that has become very pertinent in New England recently, particularly with regard to how the Boston management will work a way to sign key forward Loui Eriksson this offseason and whether or not that money would be better spent elsewhere.
Preliminary contract discussions have begun between the Bruins and pending unrestricted free-agent winger Loui Eriksson. The 30-year-old is enjoying a fine season and is second on the Boston Bruins in scoring. But whether or not the Bruins and Eriksson's agent J.P. Barry find common ground on an extension before the Feb. 29 trade deadline remains to be seen.
Eriksson's contract demands are expected to be pretty hefty after his contract year heroics. The Bruins have less than a million dollars' worth of cap space right now, the B's face some tough decisions this off-season...Eriksson's contract is the strongest but Chris Kelly (cap-hit $3 million) is also coming up for renewal, along with lesser lights like backup G Jonas Gustavsson ($700,000) and defenseman Kevan Miller ($800,000). That's a situation that doesn't give the B's any wiggle room whatsoever if they want to keep all those players, or even some of them, in Boston.
One obvious solution is to prepare the young blood to take over and fill any gaps left by the removal of slightly larger contracts deemed expendable, whether through trade or being allowed to leave in FA.
In this respect Boston are blessed. With a prospect pipeline currently ranked 5th in the NHL by Hockey's Future and impressive depth at both defense and forward, the "blooding youngsters" route is one that looks far more attractive to the TD Garden front office than it might in some other cities.
One of the most impressive players this season in Boston has also been one of the least expensive. Ryan Spooner has blossomed in his first full NHL year into a third-line centre seemingly revelling in the extra responsibility forced upon him by the recent injury to David Krejci. The small-but-skilled playmaker has already nearly doubled his points output from last season with 10+23 in 44 games. His vision and poise on the puck, coupled with finishing ability, have seen Spooner lauded by all in New England as he's become one of the key players in Boston's forward group.
Not bad for a player who was the subject of trade speculation last year and seen as behind Alex Khoklachev...whose stock has dropped this season thanks to some less-than-convincing outings at NHL level when given the rare chance. A player, by the way, who is paid only $0.1 million more than Zac Rinaldo the next two years, and less than Brett Connolly, too.
One might think it would be difficult for the Bruins to catch the lightning they have with Spooner twice in a short space of time, but they'd be wrong.
In fact, the next Ryan Spooner is already waiting in Providence, and his name is Austin Czarnik.
The center was signed as a college free agent this summer after a standout college career with the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks, where he was captain. He's been prolific in the AHL this season, initially forming a deadly trio with Frank Vatrano and Khoklachev before injury saw his development knocked back briefly. Despite this interruption he's still scoring at a very similar rate to Spooner in the AHL (0.83 PPG as opposed to 0.91 for Spooner) and has impressed mightily with the Baby Bruins.
Currently sitting at 28 points in 33 games (10+28), the similarities between the Michigan-born Czarnik and Spooner are uncanny. Both are small, skilled centers with a love of playmaking, both have superb passing ability and vision, and both are excellent skaters with defensive awareness.
Czarnik is smaller than Spooner, listed at 5'7 and 160lbs, a factor that caused him to be overlooked in his draft year. However the skill contained in that small frame is a sight to behold, along with a work-rate and effort that few will match.
This is talent that's been clear to see for a while - way back in 2013 SBN's College Hockey blog was tabbing Czarnik as a player with a big potential. This season he's been on the cusp of a callup on several occasions...however Alex Khoklachev went up ahead of him...likely due to the fact that B's wanted wings, not centers. Certainly, there's little to choose between their AHL play right now.
With the success that Spooner has had this season and the strength B's have down the middle, Czarnik's likely role next year will be as a fourth-line center unless he switches to wing - a role that he may be ill-suited to play, at least the way the B's coaching staff want it to be played.
However, he's a player who the Bruins will likely be looking to bring up to the big club sooner rather than later - his playmaking and vision are at an NHL level already, and he would be the ideal player to slot in should Spooner be moved up to the second line to fill the possible gap an Eriksson departure would leave-or indeed the player to fill that gap. The proven chemistry he has with Vatrano would also be a big nod in his favor.
Where Czarnik will play is, for now, speculation. What is not is that he is in an excellent position both in style of play and ability to be almost a carbon-copy of Ryan Spooner in the B's lineup, giving another option at center or a player itching to step in at wing.
When it comes to cap management, bang for your buck is key, and like his mirror-image in the NHL Czarnik can offer more bang for less bucks than many other players far more lauded and illustrious than he is, given the chance.
If you're wondering just how strong a position that could potentially put the Bruins in, or what effect it could have on the team next season, just watch Ryan Spooner...than imagine cloning him.
That's potentially the player the Bruins have waiting in Providence right now in Czarnik.
As this season has shown, that's a hell of a weapon to have ready in reserve. In fact, it could be a gamechanging one both this offseason and for seasons to come.