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Erik Černák 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, 2019
Updated May 17, 2019

(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).

Related: 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.

Related: 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.

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


  1. Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Alex Killorn (17) celebrate after he beats Arizona Coyotes goaltender Adin Hill (31) to score the first goal of the game during first period action at Amalie Arena on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020 in Tampa. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    The Lightning forward has hovered just below 20 goals for years and finally reached the mark on Friday.
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) leads the celebration as players contratulate right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) after he beat Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick (32) to tie the game 3-3 in the final moments during third period action at Amalie Arena on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 in Tampa. The Lightning went on to win 4 to 3 in the shootout.  [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Tampa Bay went from sixth place in the Atlantic Division to second behind a 10-game win streak.
  3. Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) gets beaten by a shot from Tampa Bay Lightning's Nikita Kucherov (86) as Lightning's Steven Stamkos (91) looks on during first-period NHL hockey game action in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. [JOHN WOODS  |  AP]
    Tampa Bay pours on the goals with seven total, including two from Nikita Kucherov.
  4. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Luke Schenn (2) celebrates his goal, the first of the game, along with right wing Nikita Kucherov (86), defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) and center Tyler Johnson (9) beating New York Rangers goaltender Alexandar Georgiev (40) during first period action at Amalie Arena on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 in Tampa. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Tampa Bay also reassigned Alex Volkov to AHL Syracuse as Pat Maroon returned to the lineup.
  5. Minnesota Wild's Zach Parise (11) tries to control the puck the puck against Tampa Bay Lightning's Jan Rutta (44) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. [HANNAH FOSLIEN  |  AP]
    Tampa Bay falls off a recent trend of strong defense and lets Minnesota dictate the game.
  6. Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper watches from the bench as his team plays against the Minnesota Wild during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. [HANNAH FOSLIEN  |  AP]
    Even if the play is erased by an earlier offsides, the penalty still must be served.
  7. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) in the tunnel before heading out to the ice for warms ups before taking on the New York Rangers at Amalie Arena on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 in Tampa.  [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Playing in Minnesota is special for McDonagh, who grew up 12 miles from St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.
  8. Canada's Geneviève Lacasse (31) blocks a shot by United States' Kendall Coyne Schofield (26) during the third period of a rivalry series women's hockey game in Hartford, Conn., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) [MICHAEL DWYER  |  AP]
    Teams representing the United States and Canada will play a 3-on-3 scrimmage as part of the festivities in St. Louis next week.
  9. TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 14: (Editor's Note: Image was digitally altered)  The Tampa Bay Lightning host the Los Angeles Kings fathers, brothers and mentors during the Kings' annual team trip at Amalie Arena on January 14, 2020 in Tampa. (Photo by Casey Brooke Lawson/NHLI via Getty Images) [CASEY BROOKE LAWSON  |  NHLI via Getty Images]
    The Kings are the latest team to bring their annual trip to Tampa. The Capitals and Senators have also done so this year.
  10. Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Alexander Volkov (92) before Tuesday's game against the Los Angeles Kings. [CHRIS O'MEARA  |  AP]
    Also, Kings’ Jonathan Quick takes a Steven Stamkos one-timer up high.