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Anthony Cirelli deserves more appreciation than he’s getting

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The rookie center has been a force for the Lightning.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the season, the Lightning fans and media were abuzz about the surprise arrival of Mathieu Joseph. The speedy winger endeared himself to fans with his relentless speed and forechecking. Given Joseph’s impressive start, many have forgotten another rookie the Lightning are putting on the ice. One who got his first taste of NHL action late last season and into the playoffs. I’m here to tell you that you might think you appreciate Anthony Cirelli, but you don’t appreciate him enough.

First, a visual representation of the shot against impact that Cirelli provides the Lightning on a nightly basis.

5v5 Unblocked Shot Rates Against with Cirelli
Micah Blake McCurdy, Hockeyviz.com

When Cirelli is on the ice, the defensive presence he brings is apparent from this visualization. He limits both the amount and quality of chances opposing offenses generate in just about every area in the defensive zone. The areas he appears to struggle in mirror the Lightning as a whole. For a 21-year old third line center, you can’t ask for a better performance in his own zone at 5v5.

5v5 Unblocked Shot Rates Against without Cirelli
Micah Blake McCurdy, Hockeyviz.com

Tampa Bay, overall, is a defensively sound team that seems to purposefully allow shots from the mid-to-high slot. I can only assume this is due to the team expecting their goaltenders to stop these shots. It might give the fan-base heart attacks, but it’s a system that has been effective for the last two seasons.

Notice the stark difference between the Lightning as a whole and Cirelli when he’s on the ice. Only two forwards have a heat map against that looks demonstrably better than Cirelli; Ryan Callahan and Adam Erne (if you don’t believe me, then take a look here). Erne has been in and out of the lineup due to the forward depth the Lightning have and Callahan averages three minutes less of ice time than Cirelli does per game.

The chart below via HockeyViz shows the breakdown of the Bolts forwards’ ice time.

Micah Blake McCurdy, Hockeyviz.com

Overall, Cirelli is averaging 14:16 through 34 games this season, but as the visualization shows, Cirelli’s ice-time has seen a continuous upward trend as the year has progressed. Interestingly, both Tyler Johnson and J.T. Miller’s ice-times have dropped at roughly the same time. Just something to keep an eye on moving forward.

Offensively, it’s a bit comical what the visualizations show us.

Micah Blake McCurdy, Hockeyviz.com
Individual Shot Locations, Anthony Cirelli
Sean Tierney, @ChartingHockey

That’s a wild amount of quantity and quality from a third line center. The fact that Cirelli is consistently shooting from high quality areas and hitting the net on 76% of his shots shouldn’t be underestimated. Only three Lightning forwards hit the net more consistently than Cirelli—Brayden Point, Ryan Callahan, and Yanni Gourde. For context, here is Nikita Kucherov’s heatmap.

Micah Blake McCurdy, Hockeyviz.com
Sean Tierney, @ChartingHockey

Side note—Kucherov is out of this world, he shoots from areas that shouldn’t be as dangerous and still converts them at an absurd rate.

Cirelli might not convert on his chances as much as Kucherov, but when a third line center is putting that much pressure on opposing defenses, you’re in a great spot depth wise. As for the advanced metrics, Cirelli leads the team in both CF% (58.61%) and xGF% (63.1%). The other forwards right behind him are his linemates, Alex Killorn and Mathieu Joseph. Joseph, in particular, has seen his numbers dip when moved away from Cirelli. Killorn, on the other hand, has been stapled to Cirelli’s wing since the season began. Nonetheless, Cirelli, Killorn, and Joseph have been dominant at 5v5 with a CF% of 56.58% and an xGF% of 59.25%.

Additionally, the recent line adjustment with J.T. Miller on the wing instead of Joseph has been an even deadlier combination. The line combination of Miller, Cirelli, and Killorn has a CF% of 64.52% and an xGF% of 74.22%—that’s absurd and leads all lines with at least 60 minutes played together. Any center, let alone a third line center who has a zone start ratio of 44% (meaning he starts most of his shifts outside the offensive zone), dominating the shot and expected goal shares like this, is impressive.

Another great attribute Cirelli has brought to the Lightning is his ability in the faceoff circle. The Lightning haven’t been an especially strong faceoff team under Jon Cooper, they’ve usually hovered in the high-40’s in percentage and have occasionally broken 50%—through 34 games, the Lightning are 50.5% in the faceoff circle. Tampa Bay has primarily used Cirelli, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, and Cedric Paquette as their centers. No one is above Cirelli’s 393 faceoffs taken or his 202 wins. The only center who is above Cirelli’s 51.4% win percentage is Stamkos at 56.7%. However, the lion’s share of shorthanded faceoffs belongs to Cirelli with 89 (45 wins to 44 losses). The next closest shorthanded center is Johnson at 35 (11 wins to 24 losses).

Cirelli might not have the counting numbers that many would like but a 31 point pace is still respectable for a rookie. It should be noted that Cirelli’s line with Killorn and Joseph were notoriously unlucky at the start of the season in regards to their point production. It’s rare that a line drives play as well as they did and not score consistently. And lately, that has started to change. Alex Killorn in particular has been scoring in bunches.

Cirelli’s ability to limit to the opposition’s chances and drive play toward the offensive zone are something the Lightning sorely needed after Tyler Johnson wasn’t suited for the third line center role last season. Cirelli provides the kind of depth coaches rave about in the NHL. The best part is he’s still figuring things out as a rookie and he’s already this good. If there’s one player who has been lost in the noise that Kucherov, Point, Stamkos, Gourde, and Joseph have made, it’s Anthony Cirelli.