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Would you rather have Cernak or Shattenkirk?

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A hypothetical worth thinking about.

Los Angeles Kings v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images

I know that the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup just over a week ago, but the offseason waits for no one. The Lightning have a lot of questions ahead of them. Restricted Free Agents. Making cap space. Filling out the roster. I do not envy Julien BriseBois his job right now because he has some incredibly tough decisions to make and delicate negotiations to have in the coming weeks. Some of those decisions and negotiations will need to come faster than others.

This question though has been on my mind for a little while. There have been some indications in the media that Kevin Shattenkirk is interested in coming back to the Lightning, and potentially on a below market deal. I mean, it would definitely have to be a below market deal for the Lightning to afford him. Having re-established himself with 34 points in 70 games for the Lightning, and showing he was fully healthy, Shattenkirk should be able to find a deal paying him $5-$6 million for 2-3 years.

Evolving-Hockey’s Contract Predictor has seven years at $5.6 million as the most likely contract for Shattenkirk. I think at 31 years old, seven years is probably too long for most teams. Erik Cernak’s projection is for two years at $2.5 million. That is a number I think the Lightning will be able to afford, but that’s if they’re able to do the finagling I think they will pull off to make room for Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli on restricted free agent contracts.

So my question to present is this: if Shattenkirk was willing to sign for the exact same contract as Cernak, but the team then trades Cernak and receives back presumably a first round pick or comparable value prospect, would you do it?

The Case For Shattenkirk

Shattenkirk is 31 years old. While that is definitely past prime, it isn’t necessarily that far down the hill yet for him. Shattenkirk dealt with some injuries in New York, but was fully healthy for the Lightning this year. He’s obviously a much more impactful player offensively than Cernak. He’s also been pretty solid defensively, but you could certainly make a case that Cernak has the edge there combined with his physicality. Shattenkirk’s also shown great chemistry with Sergachev, but has also proven he can play just as well next to Ryan McDonagh and Victor Hedman. The deal could be for two or three years, similar to a contract for Cernak.

Because of his buyout by the New York Rangers, he’ll continue to make $1.4 million per season from them over the next three seasons. Add in $2.5 million per year from the Lightning and that still has him making just about $4 million per year. Add in the tax advantages of earning much of that money in Florida, while he’s still ultimately being paid below market and leaving money on the table, he’s making a good salary. Cap Friendly estimates that Shattenkirk, including his buy out money for the next three seasons, has locked in earning just over $42.5 million. Granted, much of that will have been eaten by income tax over the years, but he’s still made more than enough money to let him live in comfort for the rest of his life even if he retires.

The Case for Cernak

Cernak is much younger, having just turned 23 years old over the summer. He’s also got more size and physicality. Cernak is arguably a better defensive defenseman, especially when combined with that physical edge. His offense definitely doesn’t stack up to Shattenkirk, and he took a bit of a step back in his sophomore season. While he’s a #4 type of defenseman, he often played more minutes than Shattenkirk throughout the season and thru the playoffs.

Additionally, the Lightning would retain control of Cernak as a two or three year deal would expire with Cernak once again being a restricted free agent. At that point, the Lightning will have been able to move past some of their middle tier contracts, and could have the room to lock him up for another 5-6 years and keep him in Tampa through and past his prime to 30 years old.

My Verdict

I think I lean very, very slightly towards Shattenkirk in this scenario. Shattenkirk has a bigger offensive impact than Cernak on the ice and that can come up big, especially during the playoffs. He’s also not so far behind Cernak defensively to consider it a wide gulf. There is always the risk of injury, which is even true of Cernak because of the physical game he plays, and that risk will only get worse as Shattenkirk continues to age.

The other upside is getting compensation out of the deal by trading Cernak. He could potentially be an offer sheet candidate for a team that feels they can put the squeeze on the Lightning. A 5-year $4.5 million contract for Cernak would only net the Lightning a second round pick. I believe that in a trade, because of his youth and being right handed, that the Lightning could command a first round pick for Cernak.

The Lightning need to continue to stock their cupboard with talent. It’s become a little bit thin and will likely remain on the lean side for another draft or two because of the number of first round picks (and first round prospects like Nolan Foote) the Lightning have traded away recently.