The Tampa Bay Lightning season is over. With a long summer ahead of us, we’re going to hand out grades to each player on the roster. You did your part submitting your grades via the reader survey, and they are presented along with our writers’ grades. All told, about 360 of you submitted grades, which is less than last season, but that’s understandable considering how the season went. Follow along with the series through the month of May and share your thoughts in the comments.
Ah, Erik Cernak. What a pleasant surprise you were this season.
Wait, didn’t I say that already? Oh that’s right, I started out my grade of Mathieu Joseph exactly the same way. But it still holds true here for Cernak. When he was acquired in the Ben Bishop trade with the Los Angeles Kings at the 2016-17 NHL Trade Deadline, not a lot was thought of Cernak. Many felt he was a prospect that had stagnated in his two years in the OHL after being drafted in the second round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
At the time, we knew that he was well liked after he was drafted, but had fallen out of favor with many prospect watchers. Expected to be a big contributor for the power house Erie Otters, he only managed to record 15 points over 41 games in his first OHL season. This was after a season in which he put up 13 points in 43 games playing in Slovakia’s Men’s league. He performed a little better with 21 points in 50 games in his second season, but it wasn’t a huge improvement.
In his first year with the Syracuse Crunch though, he really impressed our staff. He was a responsible defenseman that succeeded in helping to keep the puck out of his own net. He didn’t bring a lot of offense to the Crunch, but put up a respectable 18 points in 71 games.
I graded Cernak an A+ because he far exceeded my expectations for this season. I expected him to see a handful of games as an injury replacement, but never in my wildest dreams would he put up minutes and become a solid top four defenseman so quickly.
The rest of the staff agreed with an A- from Matt and Igor being his lowest grades among the staff. His two highest were an A+++ from Alex and Justin, our two Syracuse Crunch watchers. They were the ones that observed first hand the kind of defenseman he was turning into in his first pro season with the Crunch.
And when you look at the following chart that shows his WAR and expected goal impacts via Evolving Hockey, it’s easy to see why the staff is so high on him.
Last summer, there wasn’t much reason to think he would make the 2018-2019 roster. He was maybe one of the first couple of injury recalls, but none of us foresaw the kind of season he had. That started to change through training camp and the pre-season. While Joseph, Mitchell Stephens, and Alexander Volkov were held out of the prospect tournament, Cernak played and looked great.
He then continued that play into the pre-season and stuck with the team for longer than any of us really expected. It really showed to fans what the organization thought of Cernak even though the numbers made it so he ultimately had to be sent back to the Syracuse Crunch. He picked up his play where he left off the last season, except better.
The Lightning had an injury situation fairly early in the season that necessitated the recall of a defenseman when Victor Hedman was injured at the end of October. However, Cernak was injured at the time and Cameron Gaunce was called up instead.
The same day that Victor Hedman returned to the line up, Anton Stralman then suffered an injury to open the door for Cernak. He was called up on November 13th and remained with the Lightning for the rest of the season. He entered the line up playing along side Ryan McDonagh giving him the best opportunity to succeed in his NHL debut. He impressed right from day one and rarely looked out of place.
Now, some of his success certainly has to be a nod towards his time with McDonagh. McDonagh is an excellent defenseman especially since he fully recovered over the summer from multiple injuries he was playing through when he was acquired from the New York Rangers at the 2017-18 NHL Trade Deadline.
At even strength, Cernak spent 836 of his 955 minutes with McDonagh. He spent about 50 minutes each with Hedman and Braydon Coburn and 14 minutes with Mikhail Sergachev. With the majority of his time spent with McDonagh, we can look at both players numbers and get an idea of how much impact they had on each other.
The quickest way for us to do that comparison is by looking at their Goals Above Replacement from Evolving-Hockey.com. Cernak had the second highest EV GAR/60 among the Lightning’s regular defenseman with 0.527. He was exceeded by Hedman’s 0.613. McDonagh came in third with 0.447. From this, combined with the times we know about, we can certainly see that when they were together, they were highly effective, more so than McDonagh was when he was paired with any other defender.
Another good point for Cernak is that he was also the Lightning’s best in Short Handed GAR/60 and Penalties GAR/60. From an overall GAR/60 perspective, Cernak finished second on the team behind Hedman. Hedman widened the gap between them mostly through his power play contributions.
Even if we look at his totals, Cernak was fifth on the team in total ice time in all situations and at even strength. He finished tied with Hedman for first in SH GAR, second in Penalty GAR, and third in EV GAR and PP GAR. It’s very easy to make the case that he was the teams second or third best defenseman behind Hedman and McDonagh.
Cernak isn’t the most overly flashy on the offensive end, but his superior defending and ability to help break the puck out and get the offensive rush going was solid and consistent. It was rare this season that I was going “DANGIT CERNAK!” like I did with some of the other defensemen on the team. He fit in and showed himself to be a top four defenseman.
Now, I know there might be some skeptics out there that would like to point to Jake Dotchin. Many of the same points I’ve made here, we could have made about Dotchin in 2016-17 when he played 35 games in the NHL. Like Cernak, he played next to a top defenseman in Victor Hedman. He also put up some assists and got power play time on the second unit. And at the end of that season, a lot of people were excited about him as a top four defenseman.
For me, there was still some doubts about Dotchin after that season. I was more of a skeptic. I didn’t like his skating. His positioning seemed to be suspect. I had much more of a feeling that he was riding on Hedman’s coat tails.
But Cernak feels different. It feels much more like Cernak is a part of the pair with McDonagh, rather than just a passenger as I felt Dotchin was. I have a lot more confidence going into next season that Cernak will be able to repeat his rookie performance and continue to provide valuable minutes in the top four along side Ryan McDonagh.