Last night’s loss to the Arizona Coyotes was a rough one for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Not only did they get blown out of the building losing 7-3 despite having a first period lead and tying the game 3-3 in the second, but they lost Erik Cernak to an injury. The loss of Cernak is the latest in a recent rash of injuries after the team had been healthy for most of the season.
Many of the injuries have been minor with various players missing a game or two. Mitchell Stephens is the latest in that group as the team held him out last night for precautionary reasons with a minor lower body injury. But the two big injuries have both been on defense as Ryan McDonagh and Jan Rutta have missed the last several weeks. Both players made the recent road trip with the team and have been skating, which is encouraging.
In their stead, Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn have been playing lots of minutes and the forward injuries have resulted in Cameron Gaunce drawing into the lineup as a floater. He took shifts at both forward and defense after the Cernak injury last night.
With McDonagh and Rutta both looking like they’ll be back some time early next month, it seemed like the Lightning would be able to stand pat at the trade deadline. wait until their return, and then enter the playoffs healthy. Depending on the severity of Cernak’s injury, that might no longer be the case. We don’t want to speculate and with the team getting home today, they probably won’t find out how bad the injury is until late today or even tomorrow morning. But with the trade deadline being tomorrow at 5 PM, the Lightning front office has probably already starting making calls in the event Cernak is going to miss time into the playoffs.
Fortunately, the Lightning probably aren’t starting from scratch in their search. They’ve likely been exploring the option of upgrading on defense already so they should know the market. The question will be if the injury is severe enough to keep Cernak out long term, and if so, is there a player available at a cost that makes it worth upgrading?
With that in mind, let’s take a look at all the options. We’re going to use the TSN trade bait board to tell us which players are most likely available via trade. But before we dig into that, let’s look at the internal options.
The veteran defender has had a rough go this year. He’s only one year removed from finding success on a pair with Mikhail Sergachev last season but so far, he hasn’t been able to rediscover that magic. He turns 35 this week and there’s no shame in a player starting to age out of the league at that point. Given his numbers this season (as we’ll see below), going into the playoffs reliant on him would be a big risk.
Schenn has been fine as an injury fill in but he’s been one of the worst regular skaters on the Lightning this season. That’s not a knock on him. He’s an NHL/AHL tweener and while he can fill minutes and get a team through short term injuries, he’s not a player a team chasing a Stanley Cup wants to be relying on every night.
This is the wild card. If the team thinks Foote is ready, the whole trade conversation is moot. They could call him up and ease him into the lineup by running seven defenders just like they did with Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. The problem with this option is that he hasn’t played an NHL game yet. And with no time to see him play before the trade deadline, banking on a rookie in a season this important carries a ton of risk. No matter his pedigree or how he’s played in the AHL, the lack of any NHL track record makes having confidence he would transition smoothly almost impossible. While this is the least expensive and most fun option, it would be an aggressive gamble.
The TSN trade bait board has seventeen defenders. The following plot shows how each of them perform in some key metrics. I’ve also included Cernak, Coburn, and Schenn for comparison as well as Zach Bogosian who agreed to contract termination with the Sabres and is a free agent.
The other possible off the board option could be Dustin Byfuglien. Given that his health status and level of desire to continue playing hockey are unknown, I can’t include him here. But if he’s healthy and ready to play, he was still great last season and would be an option.
On this heat map, blue indicates grading well in a particular metric while orange indicates grading poorly. All data here is via Evolving Hockey.
Cernak is listed first for comparison. After that, the players are ordered as they appear on the Trade Bait list meaning that the players further to the left are more acquirable according to the insiders. In theory, in the event Cernak is out long term, the Lightning would prefer a right handed defender. But because of Sergachev’s ability to play the right side, that might be less important than it first appears. Especially with only a little over 24 hours to work out a deal.
To start, we should consider that the Lightning aren’t just looking for any defender. Cernak fills a specific role as a defensive specialist, which is evident looking at the even strength defense tiles. Without him, they really don’t have anyone to fill that role. This Lightning roster is about as potent as it can get offensively so additions in that area are likely at the point of diminishing returns. Any trade would need to bring a player with at least some defensive impact.
Focusing on players with positive defensive results severely limits the pool of players here. Jonas Brodin, Jeff Petry, Ben Hutton, Tony Deangelo, and Josh Manson are the only players who fit that profile this season. We can write off Deangelo and Hutton immediately. The Lightning have already moved on from Deangelo once and I’m skeptical of his defensive impacts this year when he’s been bad in that area in the past. The latter logic also applies to Hutton. He’s looked good on the Kings this season but never showed these kinds of impacts in Vancouver.
That leaves us with a trio of high end defenders who would all be difficult to acquire. All three players are also under contract after this year at significant cap hits. In some ways, this could make them more enticing in that they wouldn’t just be short term acquisitions. But with the cap crunch this summer, all of them would either require their current teams to retain salary meaning the price would be sky high in a trade or the Lightning would have to trade them again after the season.
Brodin is left handed while the other two are right handed. Of the three, Petry is the best player. He’s well rounded and would likely play on the top pair with Victor Hedman giving the Lightning a true top pairing for the first time since Anton Stralman’s prime. Manson would be an almost one for one swap for Cernak and could slide in next to McDonagh forming a shutdown pair. As a lefty, Brodin would require the most lineup shuffling. He could possibly play with Kevin Shattenkirk while Sergachev plays on the right with McDonagh. Or Shattenkirk could play with McDonagh while Brodin pairs with Sergachev.
Adding any of these players would be a big upgrade for this season and make the Lightning even more of a threat in the playoffs. But all of them would also come at a significant cost in terms of draft picks and prospects as well as future cap complications. A trade of this magnitude after already spending a first round pick and the organization’s top prospect would put the Lightning even more all in on this season than they already are. That could be difficult for the front office to justify given how short the prospect pool is already starting to look. The only consolation to trading their first round pick is the possibility that they could recoup a first round pick (or two?) in a trade this summer for one or more forwards.
If the Cernak injury is serious, the Lightning are in a tough spot. The options to replace him are slim, expensive, and introduce further cap complications this summer. Aside from Petry, Brodin, and Manson, none of the players rumored to be available represent significant upgrades on the in-house options while also fitting the role vacated by Cernak. His emergence as a defensive stalwart has been a huge part of the Lightning’s evolution into a more well-rounded team over the last two seasons. Losing him would leave a very specific hole that will be difficult to fill before the trade deadline.