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2020 Raw Charge Top 25 Under 25: #4 Erik Cernak

An analysis of how effective Erik Cernak is on defense.

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six
EDMONTON, ALBERTA - SEPTEMBER 28: Erik Cernak #81 of the Tampa Bay Lightning hoists the Stanley Cup overhead after the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars 2-0 in Game Six of the NHL Stanley Cup Final to win the best of seven game series 4-2 at Rogers Place on September 28, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

Erik Cernak is a 23-year-old right-shot defenseman who just completed his second season in the NHL (I heard he won a large trophy or something?). Cernak has a very strong resume dating back to his age-16 season when he debuted in the Slovakian pro league. One thing I think even I forget with Cernak is that he’s a second round pick (2015, Los Angeles Kings, 43rd overall), but because he wasn’t “our pick” and we acquired him during a throwaway season for a rental in Ben Bishop, I have a hard time remembering how good he has been for a while now.

In his teenage years, Cernak was a top player in Slovakia before even his 18th birthday. He was a mainstay on their defense at junior tournaments as well as on the men’s teams now. He also won the OHL Championship with the Erie Otters in his first season there. After spending one year in the AHL, Cernak was called up to the NHL and has been there ever since.

Compared to Cal

This year in our rankings, Cernak jumped Cal Foote, who was profiled yesterday. Last year, I think there was an assumption that Foote would make the NHL and compete against Cernak for a spot. I certainly thought so. Despite being drafted a round earlier, Foote is two years younger than Cernak and has needed that time to round out his game in the AHL. I certainly think he’s done that by now, but Cernak has had the benefit of time on his side and has made a name for himself in the NHL (you can see it in some shiny steel).

It’s funny, I think both have had the same careers up to this point. What I said about Cernak, Foote did in the WHL and on Team Canada at the word juniors. He hasn’t had the same opportunity to play in men’s leagues and international tournaments until he turned 20 because of where he lived, but they both impressed where they were as big, mobile but solid, defensive defensemen. Two modern defensive defensemen.

Strengths

If I had to describe Cernak’s game in one word, I would use “Smothering.” He’s so good at blocking off lanes at the defensive blue line, forming that second layer of defense to absorb the puck to move it where the opponents don’t want, and putting a blanket over attacks with effective stick and body work along the boards. He’s smothering. And by working with partners like Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, he can elevate his game to play against top lines really effectively.

He’s obviously not the best guy on his pairing, but by being a genuine asset in the defensive zone, he gives them a better chance of succeeding at creating turnovers in the neutral zone and therefore giving the team more opportunities for offense. He won’t be a big part of the transition or offense in the attacking zone, but he increases the frequency that the team is there.

Here is a diagram from Hockey Viz that took me a little while to understand, but because it says so much about the Lightning defense, I’ve included it with an explanation below.

Looking only at Cernak, Hedman, and McDonagh, you can see that their teammates (green) play about 15.5-16 minutes a night if they’re forwards and 19 minutes if they’re defensemen (Cernak is different from Hedman and McDonagh because they’re his defensive teammates and they both play a lot).

Now, more importantly looking at the names in white, they all play the same type of opponents: forwards with the most ice time (16.5+ minutes) and unbiased among defensemen. Jan Rutta, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Mikhail Sergachev play against the next caliber of opposing forwards, and so on down the list with Braydon Coburn, Luke Schenn, Luke Witkowski, and Cameron Gaunce.

Hedman, McDonagh, and Cernak are the clear first tier of defensive defensemen on the Lightning. That’s huge for Cernak to be in that group. The guy Cernak isn’t paired with on a given night usually has to platoon some combination of the second tier (ie. Sergachev and Shattenkirk in the offensive zone, Rutta in the defensive zone).

Again, I can’t stress how impressive it is for Cernak to be among those two names when it comes to defensive deployment. He top competition from the coach and judging by his results, does really well with the pressure.

Speaking of results, Cernak gave up 50 shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5v5. When he skated with Hedman, that number dropped to 45. That pair worked really well together, Cernak was Hedman’s best partner in that regard. However, Cernak’s CA/60 went up to 51 when he was with McDonagh, though that pairing got the most defensive zone shifts of all the pairings. Overall, Cernak gave up 50 CA/60, a rate that was two shots higher last year.

Cernak improved defensively from year one to year two and formed an unthinkable pairing for Jon Cooper with Hedman (literally, I bet he didn’t have to think twice to put them out on the ice).

Lucky for the Lightning, what Cernak does well doesn’t result in points for himself, so his contract negotiation should hopefully make it easier for the Lightning to retain his services. And speaking of personal points being a weakness, let’s talk about it.

Weaknesses

Cernak doesn’t score points, he doesn’t lead a rush, and he doesn’t find impossible passes to create high-danger chances. But then again, that’s not his job. The whole section above is his job. And luckily for the Tampa Bay Lightning, they have plenty of talent to go produce offense, Cernak can just be the fifth guy on the ice while the magic happens.

Plenty of terrible players have used the “fifth guy on the ice” excuse to mask being pretty useless on both sides of the ice. Players, especially on the Lightning, need to have something to provide offensively in order to effectively execute the system the Lighting play. Everyone needs to be involved and know where the puck is going. Credit to Cernak, he certainly can do that. He’s not a pylon who stands at the top right corner of the zone, is all I’m saying.

Cernak can work the puck around the zone, get in the way when the puck might leave, and stay out of the way when necessary, but the one thing he’s not going to do for you on a regular basis is be the one to create that offensive chance to score. That’s a job for Sergachev (who does that job really really well).

Now, if Cernak was the kind of defenseman that smothered the puck in the defensive zone and unleashed it in the offensive zone, he would be one of the most impactful young defensemen in the game. For what the team needs, being good defensively and a non-factor offensively is just fine by me.

One last thing. I believe what I see from Cernak in the defensive zone both at even strength and on the penalty kill. He’s active in the defensive zone — you can tell he takes pride in his game there — and you can actively see him preventing possession and shots. I just hope I haven’t given him too much credit for his play with Hedman.

I said off the top that he’s the supporting actor to Hedman’s leading role, and that’s true in the defensive zone as much as it is in the offensive zone. Hedman can play a high line so well and can disrupt transitions as both the first to engage or as the second layer of defense. He won the Conn Smythe for crying out loud. The fact that Hedman has worse shots against numbers without Cernak (again, he’s his best partner in that area) gives me some hope that the young defenseman is part of the solution.