It looks like the Tampa Bay Lightning are about to get back defenseman Anton Stralman, as the team activated him off of injured reserve for tonight’s game with Winnipeg, but rather than assign impressive rookie Erik Cernak to the AHL, the team instead opted to place forward Mathieu Joseph on IR instead, according to CapFriendly. That should give the team a little more time to decide what to do with Cernak.
The Lightning have liked what they’ve seen from Cernak since he was recalled on Nov. 13. The right-shot defenseman has already appeared in 16 games and has five assists as well as a plus-eight rating and already has outshined the team’s seventh defenseman Slater Koekkoek. However, considering the 21-year-old doesn’t need to pass through waivers is counting against him. Regardless, the team seems to be doing everything it can to keep him on their roster. He is getting solid minutes with the club, as he has exceeded the 20-minutes mark four of his last seven games. While playing time might be harder to get with Stralman back in the fold, the team isn’t ready for Cernak to depart.
“He’s developing at a faster pace than any of us thought,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “When he left camp I’m not sure he sat there and thought he’d play any games in the NHL. Now he’s just under 20. He’s left a great impression on us. And he’s still with us.”
Joseph was considered to be day-to-day with a lower-body injury, but Cooper referred to him as extremely doubtful earlier today. He was injured on Dec. 8 against Colorado, but tried to play through it Monday. By placing him on IR retroactive to that date, Joseph would have to sit at least two more games, giving the team time to decide what to do. The Athletic’s Joe Smith (subscription required) writes that the team has several options, which includes opting to keep him on the roster permanently and putting either Danick Martel or Koekkoek on waivers to free up a roster spot. It could also send Koekkoek on a conditioning assignment, considering he hasn’t played in a month. However, if the team can’t guarantee Cernak consistent minutes, they might be better off sending him back to the Syracuse Crunch.
“He’s on our team,” Cooper said of Cernak on Friday. “In the organization, there’s on the team and in the lineup. There’s a whole bunch of steps in there. But he’s really opened our eyes. And he’s completely added depth to our organization, to our team. How things play out when Stralman comes back? You want everyone healthy. You want to be able to have different players in the arsenal. So we’ll see where it goes from there.”
While the team is focused on this year, the team also has to consider their future on defense as the Lightning must deal with serious cap issues this offseason and have three unrestricted free agents on defense coming up, including Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi. Koekkoek also will be a restricted free agent himself. Getting Cernak into a regular role now could ease some of the concern next year if the team has to let several of those players go.