When Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois signed Erik Cernak to an eight-year contract worth $5.2 million per season, he was making a statement. After having to trade fan-favorite and team leader Ryan McDonagh to the Nashville Predators, he knew he could secure the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Cernak to play that physical, stay-at-home style of defense that wins championships. The two former teammates play a similar defensive game and have the bumps and bruises to prove it. With his style of play, Cernak could be a perfect replacement for McDonagh.
Cernak Is a Top 10 NHL Defenseman
Cernak is a top 10 defenseman in the NHL, and the Lightning are a better team when he’s on the ice. Often paired with Victor Hedman, he is a defensive defenseman – maybe the last one left on the team. In his four seasons, he is a plus-51 and plays valuable minutes, averaging over 19 minutes per game. Last season he played 55 games and led the team in hits with 165 and also added 73 blocked shots.
On the penalty kill, the right-handed Cernak is the shutdown king. During his career, the Lightning stopped 89.3 percent of goals with him on the ice for the penalty kill. He’s even better during the postseason, as the team holds a 90.8 save percentage with a man down.
Cernak Can Reach McDonagh’s Current Offensive Output
Although not known as an offensive threat, Cernak can produce some assists and occasionally a timely goal, such as the game-winning goal in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Florida Panthers. In 2021-22, he scored one goal and 12 assists in the regular season.
When McDonagh arrived in Tampa, he wasn’t needed to score points like he did with the New York Rangers, so he focused on playing defense. However, he often surprised teams with his ability to find the back of the net or supply a perfect pass to gain an assist. Lately, his offensive output has declined slightly, scoring only 12 points in 2020-21. With the offensive bar set a little lower, Cernak should be able to match McDonagh’s current point production, as he scored 13 points in 55 games last season.
The Los Angeles Kings Drafted Cernak
Playing for several teams in his native Slovakia, Cernak was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft. He played in the Ontario Hockey League with the Erie Otters where he learned how to play North American-style hockey. When the Kings needed a goalie, the Lightning traded Ben Bishop and a low-round draft pick for Cernak, veteran goalie Peter Budaj and a seventh-round pick in 2017.
Cernak was assigned to the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League (AHL), where he continued to develop into a top-four defender. He spent the entire 2017-18 season with the team before making his NHL debut with the Lightning on Dec. 3, 2018.
Cernak Needs To Stay Healthy
In today’s NHL, defensemen are expected to contribute points. Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev lead the way in this area for the Lightning. However, someone needs to focus on keeping the puck out of the net, so the team isn’t asking Cernak to score goals every night. Having said that, he has the skills to develop into a better two-way player, while still focusing on defense and blocking shots.
At 25 years old, Cernak is the best defensive-defenseman the Lightning have and he plays a lot of minutes per game. The coaches aren’t worried about his offensive numbers, as he can easily replicate what McDonagh had been providing on the score sheet the past few seasons if he stays healthy. What they need is someone to play shutdown defense and that is why Cernak is a perfect replacement for McDonagh’s tough style of play. Plus, the team knows that they are better when he is on the ice and they will need him more than ever with McDonough now patrolling the blue line in Nashville.
Lydia Szyjka is a writer for The Hockey Writers. Growing up in Tampa, she graduated from H.B. Plant High School—never dreaming her Tampa Bay Lightning would win three Stanley Cups. She is director of communications for a Catholic university, where she is the editor of the alumni magazine. An avid hockey fan, she and her husband live in Delaware and watch every Lightning game on the NHL’s Center Ice.