SYRACUSE — After Erik Cernak’s first weekend with the Syracuse Crunch, head coach Benoit Groulx’s assessment was nothing but positives.
Strong skater. Big body. Good shot.
Most importantly, Groulx believes Cernak’s work ethic is what could eventually earn the 20-year-old defenseman a spot in the NHL.
“I like the package, now I think it’s about more maturity in his game,” Groulx said of the 6-3, 221-pounder. “He’s got a lot of qualities as a person and a player, and he’s probably one of the hardest working guys we have here. That’s a compliment, because we have many guys that are working hard.
“He’s played well so far in the two games. He has to bring more consistency, but I think he’s got a lot of room to develop and become a very good player.”
Cernak recorded a pair of shots in his North American professional debut in a 3-1 loss to Rochester on Friday.
In the rematch Saturday in Syracuse, the Crunch iced a lineup with just five defenseman, so Cernak’s ice time climbed to nearly 20 minutes. Cernak had one shot and was a plus one, but the Crunch lost 3-2 in overtime.
“That was a little bit hard for us because we only had five D, but I think we all did a good job,” Cernak said. “I think all of the forwards helped us a lot, and it’s always nice to have a lot of ice time in a game. You feel much better.”
Cernak played parts of two seasons with his hometown team Kosice HC in Slovakia between 2013-15. Over 56 games, he registered five goals and eight assists. After being drafted by the Los Angeles Kinds in the second round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Cernak took his game to North America.
Cernak had 15 points in 41 regular season contest for the Erie Otters of the OHL in 2015-16. He added 21 points in 50 regular season games and led the Otters to an OHL title and trip to the Memorial Cup last season.
Cernak, already teammates in Erie with Tampa Bay prospects Anthony Cirelli and Taylor Raddysh, was traded to the Lightning last February.
“I was happy because … it’s a really good chance for me in the Tampa Bay organization,” Cernak said. “I’m doing my best to try and go up.”
Two games into his North American pro career, Cernak is putting in the work to earn a spot at the next level.
“I’m doing my best and I want to play in the NHL soon. That’s why I work hard,” Cernak said. “I want to play here every game, improve my game, help my team.”