The Tampa Bay Lightning are a very difficult team to stop this season. If you take a look at their lineup, you will find it very improbable to discover one weak spot. However, there is one surprising player, who is unexpectedly reliable for the Lightning. That would be rookie defenceman, Erik Cernak. Not many people predicted Cernak to be such a reliable blueliner, including Head Coach Jon Cooper.
Erik Cernak and his Unexpected Way to the NHL Powerhouse
Erik Cernak was selected as 43rd choice overall in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Los Angeles Kings. The young defenceman never really received an opportunity with the Kings. Tampa Bay acquired him last season in a trade that included goaltender Peter Budaj heading back to Los Angeles. It seemed that Cernak was not that important — that he was just a small part of a deal and didn’t create much of havoc.
But General Manager Steve Yzerman struck gold yet again. Fans can easily argue that playing on such a roster that Tampa Bay currently possesses is rather smooth. But it’s completely the opposite. If you want to be good enough to play for an NHL powerhouse, like the Tampa Bay Lightning, you have to be extraordinarily good. The young defenceman unexpectedly became a regular on a blue line of the best team in the hockey.
Tampa Bay currently owns 88 points and first in the NHL standings. That means they have a 13-point advantage in a race for Presidents’ Trophy. Their numbers are completely insane. Nevertheless, the Bolts don’t have the best defence in the league. They are actually the fifth best on that list, but it´s nothing to worry about.
Cernak Providing Much-needed Help for Tampa Bay´s Defence
Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh, Braydon Coburn, and Dan Girardi. Not counting Sergachev, all of those other defensive pieces are nothing but massively experienced. Tampa Bay has put together a great defensive core to chase the Stanley Cup in the spring. And yet, they found a way how to upgrade it. Surprisingly, with inserting a rookie into that defensive lineup.
“When we first saw him in Training Camp, I was thinking like he is not ready yet. We were okay with sending him down to the AHL,” said Head Coach Jon Cooper in December. “But when we called him up from the minors, we were left shocked how much Cernak has improved. He is overcoming himself game after another and that´s what I like,” concluded Cooper his description of Erik Cernak.
Cernak was called up back in November. His NHL debut was on November 13, when the Lightning played against the Sabres. The words Cooper said, as mentioned above, were after Cernak played his 16th game back in December Cernak was called up to provide depth when Anton Stralman went down injured in November. Cernak has taken advantage of his opportunity and is still with Tampa even though Stralman is back.
First NHL Goal at Special Place
Cernak scored his first NHL goal at a very iconic place – at Madison Square Garden. And also against very iconic goalie – Henrik Lundqvist. Since he scored his first NHL goal at the start of February versus the Rangers, Cernak added another one against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Cernak Proving His Worth
For a guy who wasn’t expected to play in the NHL this year, Cernak has laced up in 34 games this year. It´s been nearly two months since Anton Stralman returned and Erik Cernak still finds himself in the lineup regularly. As of now, Cernak has collected two goals and nine assists for 11 points in those 34 games.
Cernak is not necessarily a modern mobile defenceman. He is a big defenceman with excellent reach and strength. He is strong defensively and in front of his own net. Yet he has been able to amass 11 points and posted 56 shots already. Right-handed, young, and 6’4″ defenceman, that´s a very precious commodity in the modern NHL. Cernak was able to find his place mostly on the second defensive pair alongside Ryan McDonagh.
While Cernak was expected to spend the year developing in the AHL, he already seems like an upgrade over Dan Girardi or Braydon Coburn. During the most nights, when Cernak is in the lineup, Jon Cooper chooses to scratch veteran Girardi. It´s also worth mentioning that Cernak collected all of his points in even strength and is +11 in even strength. A rookie defenceman averages 16:40 of ice-time per game.
Comparison to Zdeno Chara
If you tried to find a big defenceman around the NHL, who is also from Slovakia, you would probably end up with Zdeno Chara. It´s almost unbelievable that Chara is older than Cernak by more than 20 years and still Cernak is the second best defenceman from Slovakia in the NHL. Of course, Andrej Sekera plays in Edmonton, but Sekera is aging and hit hard with so many injuries as he hasn’t played a game this season.
Erik Cernak is not as big as the captain of the Boston Bruins, but he is still a huge body presence on the ice. Cernak has drawn up so much praise in his home country. From young defensive players and prospects Slovakia currently has, Erik Cernak looks like the best out there. Martin Marincin, playing in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, hasn’t lived up to his potential. Although he has played in 187 games in the NHL with the Oilers and the Leafs, a 26-year-old defenceman is on his way out of the NHL. Christian Jaros from the Ottawa Senators seems to be a third-pairing defenceman at best.
As mentioned at the start of this article, it´s believed to be very easy to play on a team like the Tampa Bay. But that´s not true. Giving the numbers and reliability Cernak has offered for a strong Lightning squad, the young defenceman is maybe poised to become Slovakia´s next Zdeno Chara.
Affordable Solution for Huge Dilemma
Tampa Bay appears to be all-in to win the Stanley Cup this year. Across their roster, everyone seems to have a good year and their confidence is sky-high. But after the season ends, there will be one huge dilemma for the Lightning. A 21-year-old native from Kosice in Slovak republic can provide a huge relief.
Tampa has more than $10M left in their salary cap space. But they will need to re-sign forward Brayden Point. Coburn, Girardi, and Stralman will all find themselves as unrestricted free agents in the summer. Don’t forget that Sergachev will become a restricted free agent in 2020 and will require an extension as well. The Lightning will definitely look at extending Anton Stralman. But they will probably have to leave Coburn and Girardi walk away.
Would that be a problem? Before this year, apparently yes, but not anymore with Erik Cernak. Tampa Bay now has a solid and affordable solution on defence that will help their salary cap issues. Cernak is signed for $697,500 per season until 2020. From a Tampa Bay Lightning perspective, if they are able to keep their defensive core of Hedman, Stralman, McDonagh, Cernak together with Sergachev still developing on the third pair through his salary cap crunch, they will be a dangerous team for a long time.
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