Lightning could replace McDonagh at Cernak

When Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois signed Erik Cernak to an eight-year contract $5.2 million per season, he was making a statement. After having to trade fan-favorite and team leader Ryan McDonagh to the Nashville Predators, he knew he could secure the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Cernak to play that style of physical and home defense that win championships. Both former teammates play a similar defensive game and have the bumps and bruises to prove it. With his style of play, Cernak could be a perfect replacement for McDonagh.

Cernak is one of the top 10 defensemen in the NHL

Cernak is one of the top 10 defensemen in the NHL, and the Lightning are a better team when he’s on the ice. Often paired with Victor Hedman, he’s a defensive back – perhaps the last one left on the team. In his four seasons, he posted a plus-51 differential and played valuable minutes, averaging over 19 minutes per game. Last season he played 55 games and led the team with 165 hits and also added 73 blocked shots.

Shorthanded, the right-hander Cernak is the king of stoppage. During his career, the Lightning stopped 89.3% of the goals with him on the ice for the penalty kill. He’s even better during the playoffs, as the team has a 90.8 save percentage with a man down.

Cernak can reach McDonagh’s current attacking outing

Although not known as an attacking threat, Cernak can produce a few assists and occasionally a timely goal, such as the winning goal in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Florida Panthers. In 2021-22, he scored one goal and 12 assists in the regular season.

Tampa Bay Lightning’s Erik Cernak plays a physical game (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

When McDonagh arrived in Tampa, there was no need to score points like he did with the New York Rangers, so he focused on defense. However, he often surprised teams with his ability to find the back of the net or provide a perfect pass to get an assist. Lately, his offensive production has dipped slightly, scoring just 12 points in 2020-21. With the offensive bar a little lower, Cernak should be able to match McDonagh’s current point production, having scored 13 points in 55 games last season.

The Los Angeles Kings drafted Cernak

Playing for multiple teams in his native Slovakia, Cernak was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He played in the Ontario Hockey League with the Erie Otters where he learned to play North American style hockey. When the Kings needed a goaltender, the Lightning traded Ben Bishop and a low draft pick for Cernak, veteran goalie Peter Budaj and a seventh-round pick in 2017.

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Cernak was assigned to the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League (AHL), where he continued to develop into a top-four defenseman. He spent the entire 2017-18 season with the team before making his NHL debut with the Lightning on December 3, 2018.

Cernak needs to stay healthy

In today’s NHL, defensemen are expected to contribute points. Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev are leading the way in this area for the Lightning. However, someone has to focus on keeping the puck out of the net, so the team isn’t asking Cernak to score every night. That said, he has the skills to become a better two-way player, while focusing on defending and blocking shots.

Tampa Bay Erik Cernak Lightning
Erik Cernak needs to stay healthy for the Tampa Bay Lightning to be successful (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

At 25, Cernak is the Lightning’s best defenseman and plays a lot of minutes per game. The coaches aren’t worried about his attacking numbers as he can easily replicate what McDonagh had provided on the scoresheet in recent seasons if he stays healthy. What they need is someone to play save defense and that’s why Cernak is a perfect replacement for McDonagh’s tough style of play. Plus, the team knows they’re better when he’s on the ice and they’ll need him more than ever with McDonough now patrolling the blue line in Nashville.

Robert M. Larson