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2021 Raw Charge Top 25 Under 25: #3 Erik Cernak

A Slovak defenceman found an offensive spark in his game last season

2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

When the Tampa Bay Lightning acquired Erik Cernak from the Los Angeles Kings as a part of return for goaltender Ben Bishop back in 2017, not a lot of people expected that the Slovak defenceman would emerge as one of the best Lightning’s defensive defenders except probably Steve Yzerman, the team’s general manager at that moment, and Stacy Roest — the Lightning’s director of player development, who spent a lot of time watching Cernak during his Erie Otters’ days. Despite low expectations from the fan base, over the next four years Cernak it made into the Lightning’s top four and has become an essential part of two Stanley Cup championships.

Since being acquired in 2017, Eric Cernak rapidly moved up in our Top 25 Under 25 rankings. Over the last three rankings he has been a part of the top 5 and finally climbed into #3 at the age of 24 — his final year in our ranking. Pondering about the top three spots, I personally hesitated between him and Anthony Cirelli as #2, but eventually decided in favor of Cirelli, who I still think has more potential despite a relatively poor season. But that decision was very close.

Cernak’s career in the Lightning organization has been constantly trending into the right direction since his trade as well. He immediately made the Syracuse Crunch roster in the 2017-18 season, impressing everyone with his mature and solid performance. He has never been an offensive weapon, recording just 18 points in 71 games during that season, but he was very responsible in the defense, despite playing for the first time at professional level since arriving to North America. He benefited a lot from his size — as a 6’4”, 234 pounds defenceman, he never struggled in battles for the puck and earned a reputation as a very tough opponent, spending 70 minutes in penalty box in his first season in Syracuse.

Cernak didn’t make the Lightning’s roster right out of the training camp the next season, and due to the injury his NHL debut was postponed a little bit, but once he stepped on the ice in the Lightning’s jersey he never returned to the AHL. The coaching staff found a spot for him at the right side of Ryan McDonagh’s pair and those two has been inseparable since that moment, forming the Lightning’s shut down pair.

Over the three seasons with the Bolts, Cernak played in 171 regular season games and, more importantly, in 50 playoffs games, winning the two Stanley Cups with the team in the two previous seasons.

During last season Cernak dealt with several minor injuries, which limited him to only 46 regular season games. His absence negatively affected the Lightning’s performance as the team defense played relatively poorly, especially at the right side of their defence, which has been their weakest side in recent seasons.

Even despite having to deal with injuries, Cernak looked dominant on the ice: according to Natural Stat Trick at 5v5 Cernak finished the regular season with 56.21 xGF%, 54.26 CF% and 51.56 GF% — truly dominant numbers, considering that Cernak plays the toughest minutes on the team and starts most of his shifts in the defensive zone. With the second most common Cernak’s partner Victor Hedman, they recorded even more commanding numbers, averaging 58.97 xGF% in 215 minutes they played together.

Erik Cernak is also one of the best team’s penalty kill specialists. Alongside McDonagh they’re playing the biggest minutes on the team shorthanded and as you can see from the following visualization, the Lightning with Erik Cernak on the ice allowed 0.2 fewer expected goals per 60 than the league average while being shorthanded.

During the last season Cernak allowed just 44.82 shot attempts per 60 at 5v5 per Natural Stat Trick, leading the team in this category. He also recorded 1.75 xGA/60, which was the second best result on the team, trailing only Luke Schenn, who played significantly easier minutes comparing to Cernak. In the playoffs, Cernak was basically a brick wall, allowing only 33.33% of carry-ins, while breaking 20.33% of opposite team’s entries.

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While Cernak were already known for his defensively abilities, he really broke out offensively last season. He recorded his personal high of 18 points (5+13) despite playing in just 46 regular season games. At 5v5 he was the Lightning’s most productive defenseman, scoring 1.23 points per 60, even surpassing two offensive blueliners Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev in this category. In the postseason Cernak added ten points in 21 games and finally scored his first playoff goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Montreal Canadiens.

Before the start of the last season, Cernak signed a three year contract with a $2.95 million cap hit. He will still be a restricted free agent when his contract expires in two years and will be potentially up for a serious raise if he continues playing at the same level. Obviously as a primarily defensive defenceman he won’t receive a raise in the range of Cale Makar or Dougie Hamilton’s last contracts, but Adam Pelech’s contract with a $5.75 million cap hit could give us an understanding of how Cernak’s next contract might look like.