Erik Cernak has been in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization ever since the trade with the Los Angeles Kings that landed the defenseman prospect, backup goaltender Peter Budaj and a seventh round selection for the Bolts in exchange for Ben Bishop and a fifth round pick.
But on Tuesday, at the opening of Tampa Bay's annual development camp at the Ice Sports Forum, Lightning fans got their first up-close-and-personal look at the burly, puck-moving blueliner.
Cernak was one of 28 Lightning prospects in attendance at development camp (two more will arrive Wednesday when highly-touted defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and 2017 second round draft pick Alexander Volkov begin practicing), the group of promising youngsters spending part of the day in puck battle practice sessions before working on power skating under the tutelage of former pairs skating world champion Barb Underhill.
Video: Stacy Roest on the 2017 Development Camp
Cernak certainly looked the part in his development camp debut. Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing in at 208 pounds, he actually appears bigger than his measurable, his broad shoulders filling out his jersey and presenting an imposing figure for forwards to try to maneuver around. He shows a quick burst in skating drills and is fluid in his movements.
The Lightning are pretty happy with the potential they see in Cernak too.
"He's a big, strong, puck-moving defenseman that offensively can jump in, but he's probably going to be more of a defensive guy," Tampa Bay director of player development Stacy Roest said following the first day of camp. "He knows his limitations and knows what he needs to do to play the game.
Cernak spent the entire 2016-17 season with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League and helped lead the Otters to a league championship and runner-up spot at the prestigious Memorial Cup, which determines the best junior team among the three North American junior hockey leagues. In 50 regular season games with Erie, Cernak scored three goals, added 18 assists and was plus-31. He was just as consistent in the postseason, recording nine points (goal, 8 assists) and a plus-17 rating in 22 games.
"It was a great year," Cernak recalled of his season with Erie, his second at the OHL level. "We won the OHL championship and we lost in the Memorial Cup final. That was a little bit tough, but I think it was a really good season for me and for Erie."
Video: Howden on Day 1 of Development Camp
It was also a different season. He had never experienced being traded before in his career. Luckily in Erie, he had a few familiar faces in Anthony Cirelli and Taylor Raddysh, a pair of Lightning forwards already in the system who could help him make the transition from the Kings to the Bolts.
Plus, the Lightning were a team in need of defensive prospects, both at the NHL level and throughout the organization. He was a needed commodity: a hard-nosed, sizable, puck-moving, right-handed, two-way defenseman.
"After the trade, I called (Lightning general manager) Steve Yzerman. He told me Tampa is happy they got me, and I'm happy too," Cernak said. "And I have to work hard, play hard and this is my first development camp, first time in Tampa and I'm really excited."
Cernak can turn pro this season and is looking to make the jump to the AHL level and join the Syracuse Crunch this season.
"By the way he played and the way he looks, it's up to him," Roest said. "He's got to have a good summer and a good camp, but that looks pretty strong."
Cernak's biggest adjustment in transitioning from juniors to Syracuse will be keeping up with the pace of play at the AHL level.
Video: Bolts open up the 2017 Development Camp
"I think that's probably Erik's biggest thing is just going in and having a good summer and coming to prospects tournament and just ramping up the speed," Roest said.
Since acquiring Cernak, the Lightning have continued to bolster the blueline depth. They added Sergachev after trading Jonathan Drouin for the highly-touted defenseman. They drafted Cal Foote, son of former NHL blueliner Adam Foote, with the 14th overall pick at the 2017 NHL Draft. And they've watched the continued progression of defensemen already in the system, guys like Jake Dotchin, Slater Koekkoek, Ben Thomas and Dominik Masin, who all played a big role in Syracuse's run to the Calder Cup Finals.
"If you look back, we've been looking for some D-men here and there but obviously with the draft and Sergachev, the acquisition of him, I think it definitely looks real strong," Roest said about the defensive depth in the system currently. "And then Ben Thomas and Dom Masin, the way they played in the playoffs was very positive. I think it's definitely pretty deep now defensively."