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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]
Published May 17
Updated 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

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta (44) confers with forward Alex Barre-Boulet (60) before a face-off during the first period of the preseason game on Tuesday against Carolina. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Carter Verhaeghe scores twice in an OT loss to the Predators; Tampa Bay also trims its training camp roster by 14.
  2. The Lightning assigned Louis Domingue to the AHL on Saturday. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The team has a logjam at goalie and Domingue is the odd man out, even after revitalizing his career.
  3. Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Alexander Volkov (79) before an NHL preseason hockey game against the Nashville Predators Friday, Sept. 20, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. CHRIS O'MEARA  |  AP
    The 22-year-old forward prospect sends the Lightning to a 3-1 win over the Predators.
  4. Victor Hedman will play in the Lightning's preseason game against Nashville. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and other NHL regulars will play against Nashville
  5. The Lightning put goalie Louis Domingue on waivers Friday. SHADD, DIRK  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Tampa Bay plans to send both goalies to the AHL if they clear waivers
  6. Former Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi announced his retirement on Friday. SHADD, DIRK  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The 35-year-old played 13 seasons total, making the playoffs 12 of those.
  7. Tim Tebow. [Associated Press)] Associated Press
    Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Tom Jones and Rick Stroud debate Tebow, Dickie V, the first-place Bucs and the Rays playoff chase
  8. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) waits his turn during drills on the first day on the ice at the beginning of training camp at the Ice Sports Forum. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Tampa Bay doesn’t have many roster spots available, but the positions within the lineup are still taking shape.
  9. Tampa Bay Lightning forward Jimmy Huntington (47) takes a bite out of his stick blade while taking with goaltending coach Frantz Jean on the first day on the ice at the beginning of training camp. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Tampa Bay has had success with undrafted players like Tyler Johnson and Alex Barre-Boulet.
  10. Tampa Bay Lightning's Cory Conacher (89) looks to pass the puck with Carolina Hurricanes' Clark Bishop (64) reaching in during the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game, in Raleigh, N.C, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. KARL B DEBLAKER  |  AP
    Tampa Bay falls into the same penalty trap as first game: way too many. Preseason isn’t off to an ideal start.
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