The Top 25 Under 25 is a collaboration by members of the RawCharge community. Ten writers and 106 readers ranked players under the age of 25 as of September 1, 2017 in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. Each participant used their own metric of current ability and production against future projection to rank each player. Now, we’ll count down each of the 25 players ranked, plus Honorable Mentions.
Erik Cernak came into the organization as part of the Ben Bishop trade in February 2017, and was a second-round pick in 2015 by the Los Angeles Kings. Last summer, Cernak was a relative unknown to both Tampa Bay Lightning and Syracuse Crunch fans. Despite his question mark status, his junior career with the Erie Otters of the OHL, where he was a steady stay-at-home defenseman, was exciting enough to land him at #25 on our countdown in 2017.
Now with one full professional season under his belt, the 6’3, 221-pound defenseman has shot up our countdown to #11. Both readers and writers clearly see value in him, as both groups had him ranked much higher than he was last summer. Justin, who helped cover Syracuse this past season, had him ranked as high as 7; I had Cernak at 12. Clearly, the Slovakian has made a positive impression on us all.
Cernak spent much of the season paired with Dominik Masin. Masin’s steady presence and quiet, solid season clearly made an impression on Cernak, and the partnership probably helped him make the leap from juniors to the professional leagues. Honestly, it was rather hard to tell if Cernak had any trouble at all adjusting. Not known for his scoring, he potted his first professional goal in just his 4th game with the Crunch. On October 14th, he scored against the Utica Comets, something he would describe in his post-game interview as a “great moment” for himself. He would add another goal just two games later.
Cernak talked often throughout the season about playing hard and battling. Indeed, those two things are what he became known for within the organization. In a December interview with Syracuse.com, Cernak discussed what was on his mind during play:
‘I think I was always like that, trying to hit people. That’s always best, when you can hit a guy, take the puck and all this stuff. Our head coach (Ben Groulx) told me I have to play physical. That’s why I have always in my head I have to play physical.’
About a week after that interview, Cernak reached another career milestone: his first professional fight. In reaction to a physical play that took out then-Crunch goalie Louis Domingue, Cernak duked it out for a short period with Zack MacEwen. Cernak didn’t exactly get the best of MacEwen, but the defense of his goalie and teammates was surely appreciated.
Thankfully for the Crunch, Cernak didn’t often make a habit of extending his physical play all the way to fighting. In fact, other than one other heated game towards the end of the season where he totaled 17 PIM, Cernak usually didn’t amass more than four penalty minutes a game (if he got any at all). Syracuse, very young and very inexperienced, needed all the minutes they could squeeze out of their budding defender. Sadly, the AHL doesn’t track time on ice, but the eye test showed that Cernak was on the ice more often than not.
Part of Cernak’s quick adjustment to the AHL may have been due his time spent in Hockey Club Kosice, a team in an adult league in Slovakia. Cernak was still a teenager when the played in 56 games for Kosice, located in Cernak’s hometown, between 2013 and 2015. Cernak credited his time with that team with molding his playing style:
‘In this time I started using my size, started playing physical. They didn’t like it, but they say nothing because I was big. In Slovakia, we don’t have a lot of fights there. But I’m never scared from other guys. I don’t care who is this guy, but I try to hit him.’
Cernak will be with the Crunch this upcoming season. Syracuse’s blue line will be young again, with rookies Cal Foote and Oleg Sosunov joining veterans Cameron Gaunce and Hubert Labrie, and youngsters Masin, Ben Thomas, and Matthew Spencer. As he is trusted with more and more responsibility, continuing to making solid defensive decisions within his physical game will be key to his continued development.