Two trades in 2017 invested in the Lightning's future at the blueline

Tampa Bay gave up a fan favorite and a wildly talented forward in return for Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81), seen before a Jan. 17 game, was an investment in the Lightning's defensive future when Tampa Bay traded Ben Bishop for him and others two years ago. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81), seen before a Jan. 17 game, was an investment in the Lightning's defensive future when Tampa Bay traded Ben Bishop for him and others two years ago. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published February 13
Updated February 13


TAMPA — Lightning fans still wear their Ben Bishop jerseys and “Bish please” T-shirts around Amalie Arena.

Bishop, now a Dallas Star, returned to Tampa on Wednesday ahead of tonight’s game against the Lightning at Amalie Arena and visited friends at the Lightning’s practice facility. But Bishop’s popularity didn’t interfere with the Lightning’s decision to trade him in February 2017.

Fans can look ahead to this year’s Feb. 25 trading deadline by looking back on the trade of Bishop and the trade of another talented player, forward Jonathan Drouin, and realize a deal can pay future dividends.

Bishop and Drouin were traded four months apart for what turned out to be the future of the Lightning’s defense.

As the 2017 trade deadline approached, the Lightning had goalies Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy — called by coach Jon Cooper his Nos. 1 and 1A — and needed to commit to one starter going forward. Bishop’s contract was expiring and he could have been an unrestricted free agent in the summer. Faced with that, the Lightning wanted to get something in return for him. A trade also meant the Lightning would not have to include Bishop in building a plan for Vegas’ impending expansion draft.

In February 2017, Tampa Bay sent Bishop and a fifth-round draft pick to the Kings in return for backup goalie Peter Budaj, the rights to defenseman Erik Cernak and a seventh-round pick. (The Kings later traded Bishop to Dallas.)

In the offseason, the Lightning had an opportunity to move Drouin and took it. Tampa Bay sent the forward and a sixth-round pick to Montreal in June for defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and a second-round pick.

Cernak and Sergachev were unknown quantities with potential instead of known performers like Bishop and Drouin. Cernak was more of an abstract concept to his now-teammates. He was playing juniors when his rights were traded. At the time, he was almost an also-ran in the trade, a highly drafted prospect — second round, 43rd overall in 2015 — who sounded good but no one knew much about.

“We didn’t know him,” the Lightning’s Victor Hedman said. “We just knew the organization was very high on him. We’re obviously very happy how he turned out, and he’s a mainstay on this team.”

Cernak has surprised everyone this year, including coaches and himself, since his November callup from AHL Syracuse. The Lightning expected him to be a NHL regular, but not this quickly, after a little more than one AHL season.

He finished out that 2016-17 season of juniors (advancing to the Canadian League’s championship tournament, the Memorial Cup, where his team lost to Sergachev’s in the final) and then reported to Syracuse the next season. After a successful first pro season in the AHL, Cernak had a strong training camp with the Lightning this season. He returned to the Crunch until getting his chance with the Lightning in November.

Cernak, a 6-foot-3 right-handed shot, seized that chance and has never let go. His play forced the Lightning to reconsider its defensive structure. It traded Slater Koekkoek last month and adopted its current rotation, in large part because Cernak surprised management and coaches with how much he did as quickly as he did.

Then-general manager Steve Yzerman’s description of the trade at the time holds up now: Cernak is “6-foot-3 and a right-handed shot who skates well and defends well.”

Cernak has been more than reliable playing with Ryan McDonagh against opponents’ top lines. He plays a physical game, and he’s finding his role in the offense.

Sergachev also checks off qualities on that list, except he’s a left-handed shot, and he also brings more offense. Hedman has pointed to the 20-year-old trying moves that he didn’t have the confidence to attempt at that age and still wouldn’t try now.

Last season, his first with the Lightning and his first full one in the NHL, Sergachev became the youngest Lightning player to score in the playoffs. He has been a reliable member of the defensive corps.

Before that, though, like Cernak, Sergachev was an unknown coming in to replace a known entity. Drouin had his challenges, but he and the Lightning had worked through his trade request, his suspension for refusing to report to Syracuse and then his taking back the trade request in 2015-26, and were in a good place. The Lightning gave up a wildly talented star and fans wanted to know for what.

Well, for the future of the blue line. Sergachev is 20, Cernak 21. The days when they take over the defensive corps isn’t quite imminent, but it’ll come. They aren’t the entirety of Tampa Bay’s defensive future, either. Cal Foote, the 2017 first-round pick, awaits his chance in Syracuse.

“The future looks bright, and so does the present,” Hedman said. “We’re very happy to have guys like them show they can play in this league. They’ve been a big part of this team and our success.”