The Tampa Bay Lightning announced today that they recalled defenseman Erik Cernak from the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. Anton Stralman was ruled out for last Saturday’s game against the Ottawa Senators and will also miss tonight’s game. The Lightning had sent Cameron Gaunce back to Syracuse on Friday because Victor Hedman was ready to return to action.
We already have confirmation from coach Jon Cooper that Stralman was not ready to return to the ice and he did not practice with the team yesterday. Adam Erne, who was also injured and did not play in Saturday’s game, returned to the ice for practice yesterday.
Cernak, a second year pro, was acquired at the trade deadline during the 2016-17 season as a part of the Ben Bishop trade to the Los Angeles Kings. Cernak was originally selected 43rd overall in the second round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by the Kings. He made his professional debut with the Syracuse Crunch last season and scored five goals and 18 points in 71 games. He was also second on the team with a plus-30 plus-minus rating. In nine games with the Crunch this season, Cernak has scored two goals and seven points. He is also a big player being listed at 6’4” and 225 pounds.
Cernak impressed our Syracuse Crunch writers Alex and Justin with his play in the AHL last season. He also left a good impression during the Lightning’s pre-season this year. While some fans thought he was a shoe-in to make the team, to me it always seemed like a long shot for him to unseat one of the veterans for a roster spot. Nor did it make sense for the team to carry eight defensemen when Cernak could easily be playing in Syracuse and gaining more experience. It did signal though that the team thought he was close to making it as he was the last defenseman cut from the roster prior to opening night.
When Hedman was injured, the Lightning decided to go with Gaunce for a call-up as he was a veteran that could easily sit in the press box while Slater Koekkoek rotated in to the line-up. Cernak had also been injured around the same time and missed two games with a lower body injury. If the Lightning were going to continue with Koekkoek in the line-up while Stralman recovers from his injury, then it would seem that the team would have called Gaunce up again to be the extra defender.
This signals to me that Cernak is going to make his NHL debut tonight against the Buffalo Sabres. If I had to guess at the defensive pairings for tonight, this is what I would go with.
Victor Hedman - Dan Girardi
Ryan McDonagh - Erik Cernak
Braydon Coburn - Mikhail Sergachev
During Saturday night’s game, Girardi started with McDonagh, while Koekkoek played with Hedman. The team has kept Coburn and Sergachev together as they have been a very complimentary pair. The other two pairs struggled though and the coaching staff soon swapped Girardi and Koekkoek around. Going from that frame of reference, it seems like a smart play to slot Cernak in next to McDonagh.
Cernak can play a more stay-at-home defenseman style and will have a great veteran at his side in McDonagh. McDonagh is also a great communicator and is very talkative on the ice. That communication and veteran experience will help Cernak settle in to the game at the NHL.
This call-up may only last for a game or two though. Once Stralman has recovered enough to return to the line-up, I expect Cernak will be sent back to the Crunch. The experience will be good for him in his development. With Stralman, Girardi, and Coburn all set to be unrestricted free agents next summer, there will be roster spots up for grabs for the 2019-20 season. Cernak is sure to be one of the top candidates to take one of those spots and any experience he picks up in the NHL this year will provide a basis for his success in coming years.