Welcome back to Playoff Player Grades! So far, we’ve covered Victor Hedman, Cedric Paquette, and Nikita Kucherov’s contributions to the 2020 playoff run that culminated with a Stanley Cup victory. Today, focus shifts to Erik Cernak.
Once considered by many as a throw-in piece in the Ben Bishop trade, Cernak has since established himself as a key cog in the Lightning’s blue line machine. His steep development trajectory has turned him into much more than an afterthought. That ability to play dependable top-four minutes with basically any partner is what makes Cernak so important to the Lightning, and is also what has made him the focus of much potential offer sheet attention this offseason.
Specific to the 2020 playoff run, Cernak didn’t do much in terms of contributing on the scoreboard. He notched four assists in 25 games, and failed to register a goal; only Cedric Paquette made fewer point-based contributions among regular lineup participants. But, it’s important to remember that the Lightning aren’t paying Cernak for points. That’s just not his game. Instead, Tampa relies on him to defend and move the puck up ice.
On that note, it’s hard to describe his 2020 run as anything other than a success. Per Natural Stat Trick, his five-on-five expected goal share was north of 60% during the postseason, which led all Lightning defenders. He delivered that number by allowing a team-low 1.49 (!) expected goals against per 60 minutes of five-on-five time, which speaks to his contributions in limiting quality chances against. He matched those even-strength contributions with impacts in other areas, such as his team-high number of penalty killing minutes. Among the PK regulars, he was again a leader in expected goals against.
The bottom line is really quite simple: Erik Cernak largely delivered exactly what the Lightning needed from him. He ate minutes quietly and efficiently, while doing his part to limit opposing chances in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy. From a stay-at-home defender who is never going to get the same sort of press as Victor Hedman, it’s hard to ask for much more.