WINDSOR, Canada – A decision to remain in North America last summer, and train in California, has allowed Erik Cernak to make significant strides in his game this season.
Rather than return home to Slovakia following his first OHL season with the Erie Otters, the 19-year-old decided to head to Los Angeles and train with the Kings development staff.
His on-ice training was one thing he worked on, but it was his grasp of the English language, which really helped Cernak improve this season with the Otters.
“He’s always been a good player. But I really think he took huge steps this year,” said Erie coach Kris Knoblauch. “I think a lot of it had to do with his confidence away from the rink and in the dressing room. Last year, he could speak English, but he couldn’t really follow a long fluently with the guys.
“When he got sent back from LA’s camp at the beginning of the year, he was just so confident and so proud of how well his English was.”
Originally a second-round pick of the Kings in 2015, Cernak registered 21 points in 50 regular season games. He added nine points in 22 postseason games as the Otters captured the OHL championship. Today the Otters battle for the Memorial Cup in Windsor.
The 6-foot-3, 221-pound blue liner has seen large improvements on and off the ice this season.
“I played a lot of minutes all season and lot of minutes in the playoffs,” he said. “Last year was my first year in (America) and that was tougher because everything was so new for me: new language, new teammates. But this year, I stayed last summer in America and I was all the time in America - that really helped me.
“Now I feel really good this year, my English is much better, I understand everything. I can talk with guys, which is more fun for me and I’m real happy to be here.”
His improvements this season were recognized by coaches in the Ontario Hockey League as Cernak was recognized as the top defenceman in the annual coaches' poll
His second season in Erie wasn’t without firsts however.
On Feb. 26, the Kings dealt Cernak to the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of the Ben Bishop trade. The move gave the Otters three Bolts prospects as Cernak joined Taylor Raddysh and Anthony Cirelli.
“It was something new for me, but I’m real happy to be a part of the Tampa Bay organization and I think it’s a really good chance for me to get to the NHL,” Cernak said. “I talked with [Cirelli and Raddysh] and they tell me a lot of things about what they’re doing in Tampa Bay, what they like and everything.
“After the trade, I spoke with the GM Stevie Yzerman, he was pretty nice and that was something new for me. I talked with the development guys like Stacy Roest and I think this will be really good for me.”
Internationally, Cernak had an opportunity to represent his country at a fourth straight IIHF World Junior Championship. The Kosice native registered an assist in five games as the Slovaks finished eighth at the tournament.
Cernak became just the 10th player to appear in four consecutive World Junior tournaments.
“First year (2014) was really hard for me because that was the ’94 year and there was a lot of the best players from everywhere,” he said. “But every year I got much better and I’m happy I was involved.
“[The bronze 2015] was really nice, especially in Slovakia probably because we’re a really small country and we did really good.”
Cernak has spent parts of this season partnered with Red Wings prospect Jordan Sambrook. On the offensive side, Cernak walks the blue line well and is able to get his shot through traffic from the point.
Even when caught flat-footed, he has the foot speed to recover and break up a play; while his active stick makes him difficult to get around and he’s not afraid to play the body when the opportunity presents itself.
Knoblauch has no doubt Cernak will be ready for the American Hockey League and the Syracuse Crunch next season.
“I think he’s absolutely ready for Syracuse and it’s only a matter of time before he’s ready for the NHL,” said Knoblauch. “He’s so strong. Winning puck battles - between Taylor Raddysh and Erik - I don’t think there’s two guys in our league that are better at getting those lose pucks and winning those one-on-one battles just because they’re so strong and quick.”
Cernak may be ready for the next level, but he still has some unfinished business to take care of at the junior level. Cernak and the Otters will take on the Windsor Spitfires on Sunday in a battle for the Memorial Cup and Canadian major junior supremacy.