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Tampa Bay Lightning 2019 Top 25 under 25 #5: Erik Cernak is the gift that keeps on giving

They don’t call him Drago for nothing.

NHL: APR 01 Lightning at Senators Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Oh, Erik Cernak. What a blessing you have been for Tampa Bay Lightning fans. Cernak has steadily risen up our Top 25 Under 25 rankings. He was 25th in 2017 after being acquired in the Ben Bishop trade. He was 11th last year after an impressive rookie campaign in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch. Now, having shown well at the NHL level as well, he’s up into our top five. He should remain in this area for the next two rankings as well as he is only 22 years old.

The Voting

Seeing as how he is already in the NHL and making an impact, it’s not a surprise that the readers ranked him 4th overall. He came in one spot ahead of Mathieu Joseph at 5th with the readers, though he ended up at 7th overall in the final rankings. The three players ahead of him in the reader ranking are also in the NHL. Among the ten staff voters, he had a range of 4th to 9th and finished 5th in the writer’s rankings. Me, loserpoints, and Igor had him ranked the highest at 4th on our lists.

The Player

Cernak was originally selected by the Los Angeles Kings 43rd overall in the second round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. His draft pick was actually traded twice before being used on him. The Kings sent this pick and a 2014 second round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for Robyn Regehr. A year later, the Kings reacquired both picks, plus Brayden McNabb and Jonathan Parker from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Nicolas Deslauriers and Hudson Fasching.

Prior to being drafted, Cernak was playing for HC Kosice in the Slovakian men’s league. He recorded five goals and 13 points in 43 games. He also recorded two assists in six games for Slovakia at the World Junior Championships in the second of his four trips to that tournament. He had also played five games at the WJCs in 2013-14 without recording a point. In that same year, he served as Captain at the U18 WJC where he failed to record a point in five games. In 2015-16, Cernak served as an Alternate Captain for the U20 WJCs and then appeared again for Team Slovakia in 2016-17. Over four WJC tournaments, he posted three assists in 20 games and won a bronze medal.

Cernak was drafted 54th overall in the 2015 CHL Import Draft by the Erie Otters of the OHL. He had also been a first round pick, 14th overall, of HC Slovan Bratislava in the KHL Draft in 2014. After the Kings drafted him, he made the move to North America to play for the Otters. In his rookie season, he posted four goals and 15 points in 41 games. He added six more assists in 13 playoff games.

He returned to the Otters for the 2016-17 campaign and put up three goals and 21 points over 50 games. He added another goal and nine points in 22 playoff games as the Otters won the OHL Championship and a berth in the Memorial Cup. The Otters failed to win the Memorial Cup, but Cernak contributed two assists in five games.

Cernak was acquired by the Lightning at the traded deadline of the 2016-17 season along with Peter Budaj, a seventh round pick, and a conditional pick that was not exercised. In exchange, the Los Angeles Kings received Ben Bishop and a fifth round pick.

When he was acquired, Cernak was viewed by fans as something of a throw-in to the deal, with most of the value expected to come from the conditional pick that ended up being nothing since the Kings missed the playoffs. Most of the time, defensemen need to put up big offensive numbers in the OHL to be considered viable NHL prospects. There was a general thought that he needed a change of scenery from the Kings organization, and some of his comments in interviews have alluded to the difference in culture between the Kings and Lightning organizations.

However, Cernak stepped right into the Crunch lineup in the AHL and immediately began to impress. His offensive numbers still weren’t eye popping, but he got noticed by just being a very solid and responsible defenseman. He put up five goals and 19 points in 71 games while also recording a plus-30 plus-minus rating.

Going into the 2018-19 season, the Lightning showed how much he was favored by keeping him at the NHL training camp long past when most of the Crunch regulars had been sent down for their training camp. The numbers didn’t make sense at the time, though, so he had to go back to Syracuse. He posted two goals and seven points in nine games. He might have been called up when Anton Stralman suffered an injury early in the season, but Cernak was also injured, which lead to Cameron Gaunce being called up instead.

Cernak recovered from his injury and eventually got his opportunity in the NHL. He immediately stepped in, playing on Ryan McDonagh’s right side, and never went back to Syracuse for the rest of the season. He was a part of a rest rotation with other defenseman, but still got into 58 games recording five goals and 16 points, and then added three assists in four playoff games.

Alongside McDonagh, the pair became the Lightning’s shut down pair. The duo was tasked with taking on the toughest of opposition the other coaches could put on the ice and they fared very well. This also opened up the ice more for Victor Hedman to take on lesser competition and use his offensive skills.

McDonagh and Cernak make a great pair as they are both very responsible defensively. McDonagh is also capable of pushing the offensive pace when necessary while Cernak is more conservative on the offensive end of the ice. No one is going to mistake him for Sergachev, but Cernak did show the ability to make clean break out passes which is an important skill in today’s NHL.

No other defensive pair spent more time together at 5v5 for the Lightning than McDonagh and Cernak last year with 810 minutes. Braydon Coburn and Mikhail Sergachev were next at 659 minutes, with Dan Girardi and Hedman coming in next with 654 minutes together. Of those three pairs, here are the McDonagh-Cernak pair’s ranks in some key advanced statistics according to Natural Stat Trick:

  • CF60 - 3rd
  • CA60 - 2nd
  • GF60 - 1st
  • GA60 - 2nd
  • GF% - 1st
  • xGF60 - 2nd
  • xGA60 - 2nd
  • xGF% - 3rd

Among all 23 defensive pairs in the NHL with at least 800 minutes at 5v5 together, McDonagh and Cernak were in the top 10 in CA60 (5th), GF60 (3rd), xGA60 (5th), and xGF% (7th).

The Future

The future looks pretty bright for Cernak. There’s always talk of defensemen needing 300 games in the NHL to really figure out the game. It seems like he’s getting an early jump on that with just 58 games under his belt. That bodes well for his further growth as he gets closer to that number over the next three seasons, and approaches his prime years.

He’s been given an incredible opportunity by playing with McDonagh to settle in with a veteran that knows what he’s doing on both ends of the ice. Cernak has rarely looked out of place there, and the coaching staff has shown great confidence in him. He’ll likely never be a higher end top-four defenseman that is scoring 30-40 points a year. But a steady 20-25 points each season at even strength while playing over 20 minutes a night is a very valuable player to have on your blue line. The Lightning are lucky that they should have him playing with McDonagh for quite a few more years.