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Modest Trade Proposals for the New Jersey Devils: Targeting Erik Cernak

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Today, we will take a look at Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak as we continue to look at modest and reasonable trade proposals. Cernak has emerged as a reliable NHL defender but Tampa Bay is facing a complicated cap situation which could make re-signing the Restricted Free Agent difficult. This post will discuss why the Devils should target Cernak and how they could make a trade with Tampa Bay work for both sides.

Los Angeles Kings v Tampa Bay Lightning
Erik Cernak is a young, quality NHL defenseman who may find himself on the outside of Tampa Bay’s complicated cap situation this offseason.
Photo by Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty Images

This week on All About the Jersey we are discussing which players the Devils could potentially and realistically target in trades. Today, I want to take a look at Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak. This player is appealing due to the fact he’s already established himself as a reliable defender despite turning 23 in May and he is a RFA. Tampa’s cap and free agent situation means that there is an opportunity to acquire this player right now and have him under team control for a few more seasons. Now let’s see what he may cost and what these teams could expect from my proposed trade.

The Target: Defenseman Erik Cernak of the Tampa Bay Lightning

The Suggested Modest Trade Proposal: Defenseman Erik Cernak for Defenseman Nikita Okhotyuk and a 2021 2nd Round Pick (the New Jersey Devils own the New York Islanders pick).

I should note that I was originally trying to get Cernak along with a big contract from Tampa such as Yanni Gourde or Tyler Johnson but that seemed excessive for this exercise. When I was just focusing on Cernak I was originally trying to make a move around the 2nd round pick and Connor Carrick (with salary retention) but even that didn’t seem to fit right for both sides. I reached out to John who suggested the pick and a prospect route as something that would make more sense for each side.

Why the Lightning Should Entertain Such a Deal: The Lightning are a Cup contending team that are facing serious issues with the salary cap in 2020-21. According to Cap Friendly, they have $5,333,334 in projected cap space for next season. They also need to re-sign key RFA’s C Anthony Cirelli and LD Mikhail Sergachev. Fortunately for the Lightning, they have 10 forwards and 2 goaltenders signed for next season according to Cap Friendly so they don’t have to worry about those positions as much. They can even look to save money by moving a forward like Tyler Johnson ($5M cap hit) or Yanni Gourde ($5.16M) like they did with JT Miller last offseason to save money and perhaps add some cheap defensive help.

Right now they only have 3 defensemen signed in Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Braydon Coburn. There have been rumors that both the Lightning and Kevin Shattenkirk would like a reunion on another cheap deal after he has re-established himself since joining the team. They could also re-sign Jan Rutta to a cheap deal or a similar defender to such a deal. Finally, they seem set to promote highly touted RD prospect Cal Foote from their AHL team in Syracuse after the former 1st round pick in 2017 has impressed in 2 seasons with the team. Evolving Hockey projects Erik Cernak to get a 2 year deal with a $2.497M cap hit. Let’s just call it $2.5M so by moving Cernak out (and likely one of the forwards mentioned above), the Lightning should have no problem re-signing Cirelli and Sergachev and keeping their team as serious Cup contenders.

While the Lightning wouldn’t be getting any NHL help back in this deal, it opens up cap space and gives them 2 assets for the future that could play a part in extending their window of contention.

Why the Lightning May Consider Moving Cernak: Essentially he’s the 3rd most important RFA out of 3 quality RFA’s on a contending team that is facing a cap crisis. If money wasn’t an issue then of course the Lightning would retain Cernak - but in the salary cap NHL, money is an issue. I’ll go more into Tampa Bay’s cap issues later in this post. Simply put, it’s more important for them to retain a budding star like Sergachev than a steady, reliable defenseman like Cernak. The Lightning must find a way to re-sign Cirelli and Sergachev which could leave Cernak on the outside. Also, trading Cernak could help them get assets like prospects and/or picks that would help extend their window. Cernak has provided the Lightning with value due to his on ice play and now they may see it time to cash in on him to help with their future.

Why the Devils May Want Cernak: The simple answer - he’s a quality defender that has proven himself in 125 NHL regular season games through his age 22 season. He isn’t due for unrestricted free agency until after the 2023-24 season so the Devils would be acquiring his services for at least 4 seasons. Now let’s take a quick look at his background and what he’s accomplished at the NHL level.

Cernak was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2nd round of the 2015 NHL draft. He spent that draft season with HC Kosice in his native Slovakia. He then spent 2 seasons in the OHL with the Erie Otters getting used to the North American game. During his 2nd OHL season he was traded by the Kings to the Lightning in the Ben Bishop deal. Cernak would make a quick impression on the Lightning organization with a stand out season in 2017-18 with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. He played in a handful of AHL games in 2018-19 but made the jump to the NHL with 58 regular games with the Lightning as a 21 year old. This past season as a 22 year old he’s been a mainstay and steadying presence on their blue line in 67 regular season games. In 125 NHL regular season games he has 10 goals, 18 assists, +36, 117 PIM, 1.85 SH/GP, 4.3 SH%, and 19:05 ATOI.

Using Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM) we can see that Cernak has had a positive impact on Goals For/60, Expected Goals Against/60, and Corsi Against/60 at even strength. He’s had a slightly less effective impact on Expected Goals For/60 and Corsi For/60 at even strength. By RAPM, Cernak has been a serviceable defender. I should note that his RAPM for 2018-19 was better than his one for 2019-20 which is something to think about. Still, I’d put more weight on his metrics over 125 games and 1,984 even strength minutes than either of his individual seasons.

Erik Cernak’s career (2018-20) RAPM via Evolving Hockey.

I also wanted to take a look at how Cernak compares to his peers. I’m going to look at a list of defensemen ages 18-23 on Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) table for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons that have played at least 1,000+ minutes in those seasons. Cernak’s Defensive GAR (Even Strength GAR + Shorthanded GAR) of 5.7 in 2018-19 ranks 8th out of 60. His 3.3 Defensive GAR for 2019-20 ranks 22nd out of 60. In fact, a lot of Cernak’s value seems to come from Shorthanded situations. His 2.6 Shorthanded GAR in 2019-20 ranks 1st out of 60 while his 2.3 Shorthanded GAR in 2018-19 ranks 2nd.

Bryce Chevallier recently launched Architecte Hockey which includes a really interesting “Player Styles” feature. He uses various stats along with “microstats” tracked by Corey Sznajder and puts them into categories to rate players. In terms of defensemen, he has 6 attributes that he uses to describe them which are: High Volume Shooter, In-Zone Quaterbacks, Rush-Leaders, Build-Up Passers, Shutdown Defencemen, and Deep Defensive Defencemen. You can read a full breakdown of how he comes up with these and what stats are used here. As you’ll see from part of Cernak’s player card, he excels as a Shutdown defender and has a decently balanced game with some Build-Up, Rush, Deep Defensive, and Shooting skills. He isn’t an In-Zone Quaterback but that’s fine, someone else could fill that role. I’ll put his profile paired with Will Butcher’s below to show how they may complement each other well as a pairing.

Erik Cernak’s player style by Architecte Hockey.
A look at how Will Butcher’s In-Zone Quaterbacking skills could pair well with Cernak’s overall defensive and transition game. Thanks to Architecte Hockey.

Architecte Hockey also has a 5 star rating system which you can see below. Cernak’s Defense and Transition game is excellent with 5 star ratings while his passing and shooting are also very competent with 4 star ratings.

Ratings by Architecte Hockey.

Why the Devils Would Be Willing to Part with Okhotyuk and a 2nd Rounder for Cernak: Nikita Okhotyuk was drafted by the Devils in the 2nd round of the 2019 draft. He’s spent 3 seasons with the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL though missed a large part of last season due to breaking his hand. He’s likely to turn pro in 2020-21 and already signed his Entry Level Contract awhile ago. While he is a legitimate prospect, he’s a tier below the likes of Ty Smith or Reilly Walsh when it comes to the Devils prospect depth. Fellow OHL defenders Kevin Bahl and Michael Vukojevic would be in the same tier as having NHL potential but not as close to being an impact player like Smith or Walsh could be. The Devils also have further depth like Case McCarthy who had a solid freshman season for Boston University and a Russian prospect like Daniil Misyul who could have some upside. Essentially, the Devils would be moving Okhotyuk without sacrificing their prospect pool in the process. They’d also be exchanging Okhotyuk for a young, proven defender.

Obviously, the Devils would want to keep as many draft picks as possible. But in this case, I think it makes sense to utilize a 2nd round pick to get a player of Cernak’s ability at this stage in his career. Drafting and developing is hard and if you can turn a 2nd rounder into a player that can immediately upgrade your NHL team while being a piece for the future as well, then I think you should do it.

Why the Lightning Would At Least Consider This Return: Ideally, the Lightning wouldn’t give up a defenseman of Cernak’s caliber without getting NHL help in return. But their cap situation isn’t ideal. They can hope that promoting Cal Foote from within can help replace some of Cernak’s production at a lesser cost. Adding a legitimate NHL prospect like Nikita Okhotyuk to their prospect pool helps their depth in the short term. They can also hope that along with Foote, Okhotyuk can help be a fixture on their blue line long term.

Player comparison tool from Hockey Prospecting.

The 2nd round pick in 2021 would also be a nice addition to their collection. According to Cap Friendly, the Lightning have 8 picks in 2020 and 9 picks in 2021. It will be important that they keep drafting and developing well to prolong their Cup contention window.

Time to play some Armchair GM on Cap Friendly for Tampa Bay to see how this could all potentially work for them in 2020-21. Going back to Cirelli and Sergachev, I’m sure the Lightning would prefer to sign both to long term deals but they may have to settle for to signing one or both to bridge contracts. In terms of long term deals, Evolving Hockey projects Sergachev to have an 8 year deal with a $6.5M cap hit. They project Cirelli to have a 6 year deal with a $5.812M cap hit. Obviously those figures wouldn’t work for Tampa Bay without them moving some of their higher priced forwards named above out. I do think it’s a more likely possibility that both of these players sign 2 year bridge deals to help the Lightning remain in win now mode for the next couple of seasons while also setting themselves up for big paydays in the future. Evolving Hockey projects a 2 year bridge deal for Sergachev to have a cap hit of $4.04M while a similar deal for Cirelli would have a $3.664M cap hit. I’m going to sign both players to those bridge deals.

In terms of trades, I think Yanni Gourde ($5.166M cap hit) is most likely to go. The Lightning would still have to make more room so perhaps Cedric Paquette ($1.65M) is also moved and Mitchell Stephens ($839,100 projected) takes over as the 4C. For Tampa Bay the below roster of 12 forwards, 6 defensemen, and 2 goaltenders would be $120,534 below the cap:

Forwards: Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Barclay Goodrow, Anthony Cirelli ($3.66M projected), Blake Coleman, Boris Katchouk, Mitchell Stephens, Taylor Raddysh

Defenseman: Victor Hedman, Jan Rutta ($894,700 projected), Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev ($4.04M projected), Braydon Coburn, Cal Foote

Goaltenders: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Curtis McElhinney

What Would Happen After This Deal: As I mentioned for the Lightning above, they would still be able to retain their key RFA’s in Cirelli and Sergachev while still putting out a Cup contending roster. They would also continue to be able to set themselves up for future success through drafting and developing.

For the Devils, they would be able to sign Cernak to a bridge deal. I think 2 years with a $2.5M cap hit would be fair to both sides. That would take Cernak through his age 23 and 24 seasons. The benefit of that is then the Devils would know how Cernak fits in with their long term vision and could have the inside track to lock him up prior to free agency. In the unlikely event he completely flops then they wouldn’t be stuck with him long term. Even with losing Okhotyuk, the Devils would still have defensive depth with Ty Smith, Reilly Walsh, Kevin Bahl, and Michael Vukojevic leading the way. In terms of draft picks, as of right now, the Devils wouldn’t have a 2nd rounder in 2021 but would still have 7 picks overall including 2 3rd roud picks.

In terms of 2020-21 for the Devils, Cernak would slot in on the right side of the defense which right now includes Will Butcher and Ty Smith on the left side and Damon Severson, P.K. Subban, and Connor Carrick on the right side. The Devils could also take a run at one of the top LD’s in free agency like Torey Krug or Brenden Dillon. Adding Cernak, Smith, and a top free agent like that would instantly make the Devils defense a lot more effective going forward.

What Do You Think: Erik Cernak may not be a name that immediately jumps out to Devils fans when it comes to potential offseason moves but he could be an under the radar pick up that makes a difference. The Devils need a lot of help on defense and this deal would add a player under team control for a few more seasons that can contribute immediately at a reasonable price. In my proposed deal, the Devils are sacrificing a quality defense prospect and a 2nd round pick but it’s to get a player in Cernak who would be expected to be a key part of the re-build. I want to know what you think of this deal. Would you want to acquire Cernak or not? Do you think my proposed deal is fair? What would you change about it? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!