Erik Cernák emerged seemingly from nowhere on the Lightning’s blue line

The rookie defenseman took what was supposed to be a brief opportunity and turned it into an impressive rookie season.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak, left, tangles with Columbus Blue Jackets center Matt Duchene behind the net during their opening-round playoff series. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak, left, tangles with Columbus Blue Jackets center Matt Duchene behind the net during their opening-round playoff series. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published May 17

(This is the 14th in a series this month looking at each player on the Lightning’s roster. Up next: Andrei Vasilevskiy)

TAMPA — Erik Černák packed for a week but stayed for five months. The young defenseman impressed out of training camp, but no one expected him to carve a spot for himself in the NHL so quickly.

Černák was recalled from Syracuse when Anton Strålman was hurt. Then Strålman’s injury lingered and the rookie got a longer look, a better opportunity. He took it and ran, never to return to the AHL.

The 21-year-old hadn’t even been on fans’ radar. A year ago, the Lightning seemed stocked with young defensemen, including Mikhail Sergachev, Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek. No one was really looking to the prospect pool, but when they did it was to Cal Foote (the 2017 first-round pick).

[ MORE LIGHTNING: A player-by-player review of Tampa Bay's season ]

Dotchin came into camp out of shape and was released. Koekkoek underperformed. So when Stralman got hurt, the Lightning turned to Černák, the 2015 second rounder who came as part of the Ben Bishop trade with Los Angeles.

Černák, known as Drago for his resemblance to Rocky Balboa’s rival, has a commanding presence on the ice at 6-feet-4, 225 pounds. He uses that big body to add a physicality the Lightning didn’t have a lot of on defense.

He quickly settled into a pairing with Ryan McDonagh, taking on opponents’ top lines, without any of the liability one might expect from a rookie in that role. Černák rotated in and out of the lineup before securing his full-time spot in early February (only leaving the lineup for a lower-body injury).

“He trusts his strengths,” McDonagh said of Černák late in the season. “He’s a big guy, and he can skate really well for his size, too. He doesn’t make the game hard on himself. He puts himself in a good position to stay on top of his man.”

McDonagh watched Černák grow more comfortable with the puck, as well, as he started to jump into the offense more, something expected of defensemen in the Lightning’s system.

[ MORE ON CERNAK: Erik Černák is "too good for us to send back" ]

It took awhile for Černák to score his first goal (31 games to be specific), but when he did, the whole team reacted. He put a wrister past Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist and was mobbed by teammates on the ice and the bench.

He might have joined the organization without fanfare in a trade that focused its attention on the goalie battle, but now the Lightning and its fans are happy to have Černák making an impact.

Erik Černák’s season

High: After dancing around each other previously, Černák dropped the gloves with heavyweight Tom Wilson on March 30 and held his own, though he lost a tooth in the duel.

Low: For a while, Černák was one of the five defensemen rotating in and out of the lineup, while the Lightning figured out what to do with seven blueliners.

By the numbers

3 points in the playoffs, to lead the Lightning (a good sign for Černák and bad for the team)

198 hits, second on the team and more than any other defenseman by 94.

16 points on the season, tied for fewest among players with at least 20 games.

0 expectations of Černák coming into the season.

[ ALSO IN THE SERIES: Ondrej Palat fuels the Lightning's success, when he's healthy ]

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