Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.
The first game of the 2019-20 season is just 81 days away. This edition of our Countdown to Puck Drop series will focus on Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak who enjoyed a very successful rookie season in 2018-19.
To get the full impact of what Cernak meant to the Lightning this season, we need to go back to when the Lightning acquired him from the Los Angeles Kings for goaltender Ben Bishop. While the big pieces in the 2017 trade were Bishop and Cernak, the Lightning also gave up a fifth-round draft pick and acquired goaltender Peter Budaj, a seventh-round pick and a conditional draft pick.
Bishop was in the final year of his contract and it didn’t seem like the Lightning were going to make the playoffs at the trade deadline, but they only missed the postseason by one point. The trade made sense for the Kings as goaltender Jonathan Quick had just come back from injury and they didn’t want to overwork him. Had both goalies been on top of their game, they would have made one of the best tandems in the league. The Lightning also got a strong backup goaltender in Budaj who led the league at that point with seven shutouts. But the hype surrounding Cernak was the most talked about part of the trade.
Bishop only played seven games for the Kings before he signed with the Dallas Stars and Budaj only made 15 appearances in a Lightning sweater. In his first season, Cernak played 58 games and averaged 19:15 of ice time on both the second and third lines. Like defenseman Victor Hedman, then-general manager Steve Yzerman saw Cernak as a player who possessed both size and a strong skating ability, two things most teams want in a defenseman. Yzerman was known for making good trades and this was no different.
Related: Steve Yzerman’s Best Trades
Cernak quickly developed in the Lightning organization into one of their top young defensemen and since reaching the NHL, he hasn’t looked back.
A Breakout Rookie Season
Through 58 games, Cernak had five goals and 11 assists for 16 points, but he was also plus-25 last season. Those are numbers teams covet for their second or third pairing, but the 6-foot-3 blueliner also had 198 hits, good for second on the Lightning. The only player ahead of him was forward Cedric Paquette who had 269 hits through 80 games. If he had played as many games as Paquette, and had exactly his average hits per game — 3.41 — he would have led the team with about 273 hits.
Cernak’s most interesting statistic from last season came during their four-game Stanley Cup playoff series loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets: Cernak led all Lightning players in points in the series with three. If anyone had predicted that Cernak — known as a defensive defenseman — would lead the Lightning in postseason scoring, we would have laughed out loud. He was playing on average more than two minutes more per game than he did in the regular season for a total of 86 minutes in the postseason. The only Lightning skater with more time on ice was defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
In the regular season, Cernak had seven points through his first 30 games, all assists. However, he netted his first NHL goal against the New York Rangers and future Hall-of-Fame goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. From games 31 to 58, Cernak had five goals and four assists en route to nearly a point per game in the playoffs. He was only 21 years old at the end of the season, but he proved he can play, both as a future shutdown defenseman and when he’s asked to contribute offensively.
Learning from His Teammates
With Hedman, McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman on the blue line last season, there was only one bottom-pair spot open. The Lightning dabbled with Slater Koekkoek before he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, but Cernak quickly turned an opportunity as the sixth defenseman into a consistent top-four pairing each night. He took advantage of an opportunity when other players were injured or under-performing, and now he appears part of the team’s future.
Lightning beat writer Bryan Burns believes the opening night top-four will include Hedman and Sergachev on the top pair with McDonagh and Cernak as the second. The offensive output from Hedman and Sergachev will be interesting to watch since both are extremely dynamic, but having McDonagh — one of the best shutdown defensemen in the league — with Cernak will help Cernak’s development as an emerging shut-down defenseman in the NHL.
However, if Sergachev gets off to a slow start next season, it’s possible that McDonagh will move to the top pair. This will give Hedman the opportunity to be more active offensively, and it will also take the pressure off Sergachev. This will benefit Cernak as he learns on the fly how to play a shutdown role when his partner jumps in on the rush, like Sergachev. If head coach Jon Cooper and the rest of the coaching staff feel positive about Cernak’s development, and if Sergachev or McDonagh are injured for an extended period of time, it’s not out of the question that Cernak could get some first-pair minutes, but it’s unlikely.
Cernak will probably see more time on the second penalty-killing unit since McDonagh will almost always be on the first. Since McDonagh will be with the Lightning for the next six seasons, Cernak will have a great mentor to hone his defensive skills. Also learning from Coburn, who is about the same size as Cernak, will be beneficial for the 22-year-old. Coburn has never been a big point producer — his career high was 36 points in 2007-08 with the Philadelphia Flyers — but he’s a big guy with a long reach who can keep good offensive teams at bay.
Cernak is surrounded by some of the best offensive defensemen in the league as well as one of the best shut-down players on the blue line in McDonagh. Learning from all of those players including the other veteran defensemen on the team, will help turn Cernak into a household name.