Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak has looked pretty impressive on the blue-line.
Last season, before the Ryan McDonagh trade took place, the Lightning had a hole to fill defensively. Anton Stralman was aging, Jake Dotchin was not a top pair defenseman, and Dan Girardi/Braydon Coburn weren’t quite that good. So they made a bold trade for McDonagh and it made sense.
But this season, the Lightning have a surplus of defensemen, to the point where there’s a rotation for who gets scratched. Plus, Jan Rutta has been a solid 6th or 7th defenseman in his career, but he’s been 8th on the depth chart and spending lots of time down in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch. It has all started because of the reliable play of Erik Cernak.
Cernak has, by no means, been playing at an elite level. However, he has outperformed the likes of Stralman, Mikhail Sergachev, Girardi and Coburn. He has been as steady and consistent as rookie defenseman come.
Cernak vs Chabot
For example, here are his advanced stats compared to Thomas Chabot of the Ottawa Senators using the A3Z Player Comparison by CJ Turtoro.
Chabot has been better with his shot contributions, as he is more offensive than Cernak. Chabot is also better when entering the zone. But in terms of exiting the defensive zone, it goes both ways, and it’s very close for entry defense. Again, Cernak hasn’t been “elite”, as Thomas Chabot has been deemed at that level at times this season.
Cernak vs Hedman, Cernak vs McDonagh
Now here’s Cernak’s visuals compared to the two “best” defenseman on the Lightning, Victor Hedman and his defensive partner McDonagh.
McDonagh is better in everything but shot contributions and breakups/60. Meanwhile, compared to Hedman who won the Norris Trophy last year, and is praised for his offensive prowess from the blue-line, Cernak compares considerably well in shot contributions. Hedman is better at both entering the offensive zone and breaking out of his own end, but Cernak seems better at breaking up the oppositions attempts at entering the Lightning defensive zone.
How Does Cernak Match Up Against Ekblad, Skjei, Ristolainen and Weber?
Lastly, here’s Cernak’s visuals compared to several other defenseman in the league:
Cernak is better than Aaron Ekblad by a mile in shot contributions, zone entries and breakouts, while Ekblad excels at shutting down the oppositions zone entries.
Another young defenseman in the league who has proven to be a top player for the Rangers blueline, Brady Skjei cannot compare to Cernak’s shot contributions. Entering and exiting the zone is controlled by Skjei, while stopping the opposition goes to Cernak, by quite a bit.
Rasmus Ristolainen is another high end defenseman that many consider elite. Cernak is fairly close in shot contributions. Entering and exiting zones goes to Cernak, as Ristolainen struggles in his transition game. Cernak also narrowly beats out Ristolainen when shutting down the oppositions entries.
Finally, Shea Weber, who has been very good for Montreal this season and is also widely considered an elite defenseman. He is superior when breaking up an opponents entries, but quite pedestrian outside of that when stopping opponents. Weber isn’t nearly as comparable as Cernak in shot contributions. Weber is the better defenseman entering the offensive zone, but Cernak has been better breaking out by quite a bit, and all-in-all has been better overall than Weber has.
How Did Cernak Become A Lineup Main Stay?
It all started with injuries to Stralman and Hedman early on in the year. Cernak took his opportunities and beat out Slater Koekkoek’s role as the 6th/7th defenseman. He then started to edge out both Coburn and Girardi, getting scratched less and less in their rotations. Finally, he jumped Stralman and Sergachev, and has been able to avoid the rotation for some time now, joining Hedman and McDonagh as the constants on the Lightning blue-line.
Hopefully, Cernak can continue to dominate on the blue-line. The Lightning have a few pending UFAs (Stralman, Girardi, Coburn and Rutta) on July 1st, and head coach Jon Cooper will most likely need Cernak to step up and fill in for one of them.
stats from hockey-reference.com and Corey Sznajder
visuals from CJ Turtoro
featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals