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Erik Cernak looks ready for the NHL but he might have to wait

Cernak has impressed in pre-season but the Lightning don’t have room for him just yet

NHL: Preseason-Tampa Bay Lightning at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The pre-season is a fun time. Everyone has the same record. Everyone feels like this is their time. Every player is going to have a rebound from their bad year. The elite players are going to improve on their career highs. Every prospect is ready to make the NHL right now! Especially my favorite prospect!

It’s the refrain of pretty much every pre-season. And it’s certainly no different for Tampa Bay Lightning fans. One of the big talking points on Bolts Twitter has been defenseman Erik Cernak. He’s an intriguing prospect acquired in the Ben Bishop trade with the Los Angeles Kings. At the time, he was a B-prospect at best.

Someone that could probably make it to the NHL, but needed some development time. He had nice size, but wasn’t a stud offensively over two years in the OHL for a stacked Erie Otters team that featured Dylan Strome, Alex Debrincat, and Taylor Raddysh, along with some decent prospects in Travis Dermott and Ivan Lodnia. He scored just seven goals and 36 points over 91 games.

He had been a big part of Team Slovakia though and ultimately played in four World Junior Championships. Slovakia is a smaller hockey nation, but you still have to be a pretty good defensemen to do that. He captained their U18 team during the 2013-14 season. He also played two seasons in the Slovakian men’s league as a 16 and 17 year old before he was drafted in the second round by the Kings in 2015.

Coming into this pre-season, Cernak had a solid rookie year for the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. He produced five goals and 18 points in 71 games while posting a plus-30 plus/minus rating with 70 penalty minutes. He’s grown into his frame and is listed at 6’3” and 203 pounds. That puts him right in the middle of the size range of most of the Lightning’s defensemen.

He’s played four of the Lightning’s first five pre-season games and is likely to see time in at least one of the two remaining pre-season games. He’s yet to record a point, but has taken 12 shots on goal. In his four games, he’s average 18:53. That’s in line with expectations since players are rotated evenly during the pre-season.

He’s played on the penalty kill in all four games averaging 2:49 short handed TOI. When it was still mostly youngsters for games two and three on the road, he also got to play on the power play, though that’s not expected of him in the NHL. He’s had no meaningful power play time in the last two games when many more of the veterans have been in the line-up.

He’s been steady and a solid defenseman. He doesn’t look out of place. He passes the eye test from what I have seen of him for being capable of playing in the NHL right now. However, I don’t think he’ll make the team. And that’s where my opinion seems to differ with a good number of optimistic fans.

When I view the roster, a lot of this decision comes down to logistics and depth rather than about Cernak’s ability to play in the NHL. His competition for a roster spot would logically seem to be Slater Koekkoek and to a lesser extent Braydon Coburn. The termination of Jake Dotchin’s contract has also opened up some room, but at the same time created a challenge for the team’s depth.

Steve Yzerman got burned by a lack of depth during the Lightning’s 2013-14 playoff push. The Lightning’s defense was exposed hard by the Montreal Canadiens. It seemed to me that Yzerman decided after that he wouldn’t get caught off guard again. In 2014-15, he went out and picked up Braydon Coburn at the deadline. He moved out Radko Gudas at the time to do it, but Gudas was also out for the season with an injury, thus improving the depth.

In 2015-16, he tinkered less with th blueline as the team was in a pretty solid spot with Nesterov and Koekkoek contributing some games. 2016-17, there wasn’t any need to acquire since the Lightning were sellers at the deadline. And then last season, he added Ryan McDonagh while already having eight defensemen on the roster.

Julien BriseBois may be new to the General Manager’s chair, but he was right there with Yzerman through all of those ups, downs, injuries, and trades. He certainly learned the lesson right next to Yzerman about how important it was to have that depth to safeguard against injuries and ineffective play. That’s a lens that when evaluating the roster, we need to look through as well to predict decisions the team will make.

With all of that said, risking losing Koekkoek on waivers or trading Braydon Coburn now to make a spot for Cernak creates a trickle down effect on the depth chart and on the Syracuse Crunch. I’m not saying that trickle down won’t happen if there’s an injury up front, but it creates a second shock wave of impact going down the line when there inevitably is an injury up front if you made one of those moves now.

Suddenly, you’re looking at bringing up one of Cameron Gaunce, Dominik Masin, or Cal Foote when you need another defenseman. Gaunce has limited NHL experience and is best suited for the AHL or as a 7th defenseman. Masin is on the edge of being ready, but I don’t feel he showed he was quite there yet in pre-season. Foote is a professional rookie and while I believe in his future ability, I also think he’s not quite ready for the NHL. By leaving Cernak off the initial roster, it eases that blow when an injury replacement is needed, both for the Lightning and for the Crunch.

What this extended look in the pre-season tells me though is that the team thinks he is ready or is very close to being NHL ready. He’s getting steady playing time and played next to Ryan McDonagh in the fifth game of the pre-season. The team seems to me to be grooming him for that eventual injury and call-up. They’re also grooming him to be in a very sound position next training camp to win a full-time spot when Coburn, Dan Girardi, and Anton Stralman all potentially leave the team in free agency.

Being excited about him is great, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of his play. Thinking he’s going to unseat one of the established veterans though is a bit fanciful in my opinion. Mikhail Sergachev was a different scenario where he was a clear and obvious upgrade in the line-up over Dotchin, Koekkoek, and Sustr, especially as the season went on. To replace a player like Coburn or Girardi and be a regular in the line-up, he needs to be a clear and large upgrade over one of those players. Playing him for a marginal increase in the quality of the roster is not worth the loss of depth if the team moves a player to make room. And I don’t think he’s that big of an upgrade...yet....