The story of Erik Cernak is a tale of league progress. Twenty years ago, Cernak would have been asked to emulate Scott Stevens. Built like an oak tree and able to separate players from the puck with increasing frequency, Cernak, if playing at the beginning of this century, would have been pigeon-holed as a stay-at-home defenseman whose impact was felt through his hits.
Things have changed, and a large reason for it is the adoption of data into hockey strategy. In this era, the hockey world prizes mobility and playmaking from its defensemen, and Cernak, especially in the second half of last season, demonstrated he could breathe life into the offense by pinching on the cycle and jumping in as the trailer on the rush. The Lightning want Cernak to be a shutdown defenseman against the opposition’s top line. But the best way to neutralize those lines is to put—and keep—the Lightning on the attack. Therefore, it is worthwhile identifying situations where Cernak succeeded last year, and their significance for this coming season.
The Lightning forwards have the ability to push their opponent back and then feed the trailing defenseman. Cernak arrives as the second wave, the straggler who puts pressure on the most apathetic forwards in transition defense. In the embedded clips, the opponents have trouble tracking Cernak because he is jumping off the bench to join the play. Against Pittsburgh, Cernak wastes no time—he fires a shot into the traffic as soon as he receives the puck from Cedric Paquette.
Against Ottawa, Alex Killorn stops, drags the puck to the middle and lets Cernak slide down the boards. Cernak explodes toward the dot and wires a shot past Craig Anderson.
The trailer scenario is an appealing option for many reasons. First, it nudges the Lightning forward(s) to play between the dots and more specifically, around the crease. The Lightning were bullied against Columbus, pushed to the perimeter and battered out of position in the low slot. But when they use that high-low, forward-to-defenseman attack, the off-puck forwards can gravitate toward the net. They can be a distraction and affect the goaltender’s vision—and be in position for a rebound.
Another virtue is that the opponent is caught flat-footed while Cernak is catching the puck with speed. When the Lightning are on the cycle, even speed that is created through interchanges can be foiled by the opponent’s defensive posture. But when the defenseman accelerates through the neutral zone and is never idle, that is more difficult to impede.
Finally, the Lightning can minimize the risk. If Cernak misses the net on the Pittsburgh shot, Paquette and McDonagh are over the top and Cernak is still in position to recover and defend. Against Ottawa, McDonagh has crept a little bit too far on the weak side. If the puck rims around and escapes him, Brady Tkachuk has a rush chance against Killorn, who is the only skater left over the top. If McDonagh were a few steps back, a missed shot would be unlikely to incur any damage.
Jump into every rush opportunity
The difference between Cernak participating in the rush when there are two defensemen back instead of four or five defenders is an important distinction. Against the Rangers, Cernak goes back for the retrieval, but is driven into the boards. Cernak never needs to make a play on the puck. Instead, Andrei Vasilevskiy flings it up the boards to Braydon Coburn, and Coburn chips the puck out for the transition. But as soon as Cernak gets crunched behind his goal, he perceives that the Rangers are looking to deliver hits and that their undisciplined physicality will leave them with three forwards caught deep. This leads to Cernak sprinting through the middle to catch up to the rush.
When Ryan Callahan finds him, Cernak is able to elude Adam McQuaid and snap it past Henrik Lundqvist. But the chance presented itself because the Lightning were able to quickly exit the zone, and New York was reckless in its forechecking. Nevertheless, in his first NHL goal, Cernak signals that he can exploit the opponent’s aggression.
Same thing goes for the play against Anaheim, which might be even more impressive than the strike against the Rangers.
The play starts with McDonagh finding Brayden Point as the outlet, and it’s almost like Cernak hears a starting whistle because he suddenly sprints ahead. He beats Ducks forwards Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano to the offensive zone, and then quickly backhands a pass to Nikita Kucherov, who whips it in on the weak side. To be fair to Cogliano, he was a step behind Cernak because he took at swipe at attempting to intercept the McDonagh pass up the boards. But neither Ducks forward comes close to catching Cernak, who created an odd-man rush opportunity due to his speed.
Cernak may be able to convert on chances in transition, but he did score a goal last season off the cycle. The Lightning had the puck hemmed in Washington’s end with the Ondrej Palat-Steven Stamkos-J.T. Miller line fighting valiantly below the dots. But when the puck reached Ryan McDonagh, Tom Wilson decided to leave Cernak unmarked and instead tried to close in on McDonagh. This allowed Cernak to fan out wide for the pass, and then explode toward the dot before he hammered a shot past Braden Holtby.
The act of keeping forwards honest, and not allowing the winger at the point to lose focus or cheat down low, is important. Hockey is a game of spacing. If the opposing forwards are concerned about the offensive capability of the defensemen up high, it creates more room underneath for the forwards in the offensive zone. And if opposing forwards are worried about a defenseman creating a play on the rush, it adds pressure for their transition defense to be taut.
The era you are born in affects your approach. Cernak’s freedom to choose defines him. He can undermine the opponent with his physicality and defensive technique, but he also has permission to use his skating as a weapon. He can jump into the rush and create an opportunity for a shooter on the weak side. He can scoot up and be the trailer and smash a shot into traffic. Cernak used to be an easy archetype to peg. Now he is amorphous.