TAMPA — Erik Cernak packed for a week when he got the call to head to join the Lightning in Buffalo.
It was supposed to just be a short stint for his first taste of the NHL. But in 53 weeks, the 22-year-old defenseman has been back to Syracuse just long enough to collect the rest of his belongings.
By March, it was impossible to take Cernak out of the Tampa Bay lineup. Now, in his second NHL season, he’s only gotten better.
One thing coach Jon Cooper monitors when in a player’s second year is his expectations. Sometimes they think the success is just going to continue, making it a challenge to manage the ups and downs.
“He’s found a way to weather through those,” said Cooper, whose team is 9-6-2 and in sixth place in the Atlantic Division with 20 points heading into Tuesday’s game at St. Louis. “He’s had big responsibilities playing with (Ryan) McDonagh and the assignments he’s taken, but he’s been able to handle it. That’s a sign of somebody that probably has a big future in this league.”
Cernak feels the difference. By the end of last season, he felt like he’d fully adjusted to the NHL. But when he showed up for training camp in September, Cernak was surprised to find his comfort level even higher.
Cernak noticed a shift in his mental approach, confidence that came through in his training.
“I had 60 games under my belt and I felt much different over the summer,” he said. “I knew I still had to work hard to show what I can do but I knew I could play in this league with the best players.”
Now the Lightning want to see Cernak establish himself as a top-four right-handed defenseman.
On some teams, that would mean power-play time, but the Lightning are rather stacked in that area. The question here is if there are injuries, can he step in there? He’s already on the first penalty-kill unit and is playing late in games or in overtime.
That increased confidence can be seen in his offensive play, an area assistant coach Todd Richards pointed to as a growth opportunity. Last year, Cernak averaged under two shots a game. He’s up to four a game to start this season.
It’s not just about shots, though. He finds opportunities to get involved. Where he might have hung back around the point as a rookie, Cernak is not hopping in on the rush or pinching down low.
Playing with McDonagh, who is known for picking his spots well, helps Cernak. He can see what McDonagh does, and they talk on the bench and in practice.
Cernak has also blocked more shots this season. He blocked 79 shots in 58 games last year and already has 25 in 16 games.
“He’s done a much better job this year of just getting his big body in lanes and blocking shots,” Richards said. “Some of that is probably spending some time with McDonagh and watching him.”
McDonagh didn’t know much about Cernak when the latter joined the team last year. McDonagh was new to the organization, so didn’t know the prospects especially well, only seeing Cernak in training camp. Once they started playing together, McDonagh noticed Cernak strong skating.
“His ability to defend backwards, his backwards skating, his ability to close on these top forwards at a high pace,” he said. “For a big guy (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), he can move laterally so well.”
Cooper suggested the Lightning had underestimated Cernak skating before he joined the team. It makes a difference in how he breaks the puck out and allows him to skate out of a situation and make a quick little play.
“When you can do that and also be able to defend,” Cooper said. “You’re an incredible asset to the team.”
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @dianacnearhos.