The Tampa Bay Lightning have announced the signing of restricted free agent defenseman Erik Cernak. In addition, the team has come to terms with unrestricted free agent defenseman Jan Rutta. Cernak received a three year contract with a $2.95 million cap hit. Rutta’s contract is a two-year deal for $1.3 million.
Cernak was originally a second round draft pick by the Los Angeles Kings in 2015 out of Slovakia. Cernak moved to North America following his draft year to play two seasons for the Erie Otters in the OHL. The Lightning acquired Cernak in a trade with the Kings at the 2016-17 NHL Trade Deadline that involved goaltender Ben Bishop.
Cernak made his professional debut in 2017-18 with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. He impressed the front office, and after a nine game stint in the AHL in 2018-19, Cernak was called up to the NHL due to the injuries and hasn’t gone back to the AHL since. In his rookie season, Cernak put up five goals and 16 points in 58 games plus three assists in four playoff games. Last season, Cernak added five more goals and 12 points in 67 games plus four assists in 25 playoff games.
Since coming into the NHL, Cernak has established himself as a solid top four defenseman on the right side. He’s mostly been paired with Ryan McDonagh which is part of why he has had success in the NHL. He’s a responsible, physical defenseman that has enough puck moving skills to provide two-way play for the team at even strength. While I believe he would have trouble carrying a pair on his own in the top four, he is good enough to play up there when paired with the right partner.
Rutta was originally acquired by the Lightning during the 2018-19 season when the Lightning sent Slater Koekkoek to the Chicago Blackhawks. Rutta was a late bloomer that was never drafted and playing in the Czech Republic through the 2016-17 season. After a 32 point in 46 game season in the Czech Republic, Rutta was signed by the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2017-18.
In his first season, he put up 20 points in 57 games. He struggled in his second season with the Blackhawks, only putting up six points in 23 games, and also spending eight games in the AHL. He split the rest of the season between the NHL and the AHL for the Lightning recording two assists in 14 games and two more in four games during the playoffs in the NHL. For the Syracuse Crunch, he recorded three goals and eight points in 18 games.
The Lightning re-signed Rutta to a one-year contract for the 2019-20 season. In 33 games, he recorded one goal and seven points. He added one assist in five games in the playoffs. Rutta had some injury issues throughout the season and during the playoffs. That, combined with the Lightning’s depth on the blue line, meant that Rutta played a depth role on the team.
The re-signing of Rutta could mean that Cal Foote will begin the season in the AHL or on the Taxi Squad. Along with Cernak and Luke Schenn, that gives the Lightning three right handed defenseman. The Lightning also have four left handed defensemen in Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, and Braydon Coburn. Though Coburn is capable of playing the right side, the coaching staff seems to have been reluctant to play him there.
On the other hand, it could signal that the Lightning might put Schenn on waivers and put him on the taxi squad as he would be unlikely to be claimed, but would still allow him to remain living in Tampa instead of moving to Syracuse. This would give the room for Cal Foote to make the team and play a more sheltered role with Cernak and Rutta taking more of the hard minutes with McDonagh and Hedman.
These two signings also gives us a couple more variables in projecting the salary cap. The Lightning are still over the salary cap and have to make moves to get compliant by the time the season starts. Locking in Cernak’s cap hit at $2.95 million sets one of those variables. But by signing Rutta, the Lightning have added another factor into the mix of possible moves the team could make.
The next week and a half are going to be busy for the Lightning, Julien BriseBois, and those of us following the team’s moves closely. Keep an eye on RawCharge.com as we continue to provide analysis to help keep up with the team as we approach the start of the season.