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Anthony Cirelli recalled by Tampa Bay Lightning: What his recall could mean

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He’s been dynamite for the Syracuse Crunch, but what does it mean for the Lightning?

NHL: Preseason-Tampa Bay Lightning at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse Crunch center Anthony Cirelli has been recalled by the Tampa Bay Lightning as teased earlier today by Joe Smith. It begs the question though, what does this mean? Would it be due to an injury? Would he replace Michael Bournival who was called up after Monday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs? Or maybe it would mean something more for the professional rookie.

Since Cirelli was drafted in the third round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, his stock has continued to rise in the Lightning organization. In his first full season in the OHL with the Oshawa Generals, he scored 13 goals and 36 points in 68 games, not exactly lighting the world on fire for a draft-eligible player. He added another two goals and 10 points in 21 games in the playoffs. He followed that up with two goals and three points in four Memorial Cup tournament games. He capped the Memorial Cup off by scoring the championship winning goal for Oshawa.

But the reality is, Cirelli was a lower-line player on a supremely stacked Oshawa team. No one from the team has made a big impact in the NHL yet, but there is some definite talent from that roster that will be NHL regulars as they graduate from the minor leagues. Count Cirelli among them. When Cirelli had the opportunity to move up the line-up the following season, eventually taking over the Captain’s role for Oshawa, he approached being a point per game played. His 2016-17 season he pushed it even further and eventually ended up on the OHL Championship winning Erie Otters.

This season, Cirelli has made an impact playing a top six role for the Syracuse Crunch. He started off slow, as a number of the Crunch’s rookies did, but has come back to put up 14 goals and 37 points in 51 games. His points total is tied for the lead on the Crunch. He also doesn’t commit very many penalties with just seven minors this season.

Even with his rise since being drafted, this is still perhaps a bit earlier than a recall was expected, especially considering that Matthew Peca and Adam Erne have played so well this season. And then you have veterans Michael Bournival and Carter Verhaeghe having solid seasons on top of that.

So, why now? The Lightning are starting to get back healthy with Nikita Kucherov, Ryan McDonagh, and Ondrej Palat either just returning or about to return from injury.

So here’s what I see.

This call-up is an audition to replace Cedric Paquette on the roster.

Paquette isn’t a bad player. He plays hard, he blocks shots, he’s solid on the penalty kill. He’s a heart and soul kind of player that you want to have a couple of on your roster. But the reality has been that the beating his body has taken the past several season seems to be taking it’s toll on his performance on the ice.

According to advanced statistics from NaturalStatTrick.com, Paquette has the worst CF% and CF60 and the second worst CA60 of the regular forwards on the team. For a guy that is supposed to play a strong defensive game, you’d expect his CF60 to be down further on the list as he doesn’t drive offensive play. But you do expect him and his linemates to at least be getting the puck out of the zone efficiently and spending time in the opponent’s zone forechecking and cycling the puck. That isn’t happening as much this season for Paquette as in the past.

Even going back to traditional states, he’s a player that has scored two goals and four points in 44 games played. He’s never been expected to score a bunch, but most fourth liners still have a better scoring rate than that. He also hasn’t been a big positive in the faceoff dot either winning 45.8% of his draws, the worst of his four full seasons in the NHL.

Put it all together, and you have a fourth line grinder that isn’t quite doing enough at even strength to have a lot of confidence in him.

In steps Cirelli. I honestly have been less optimistic about Cirelli’s projection than some other people. For some, they’ve gotten hyped up that he could chip in on the second line. Maybe that’s possible for him for short times, but I don’t see it. It’d be great if he is able to center a third line, but again, I’m more pessimistic about his ability to do so and be a 30-point scorer.

But I do think that he can be a very, very good fourth line center. And that’s probably the floor for his potential in the NHL. Anything more than that will be a big win in my book. Something to keep in mind is that Jon Cooper rarely trusts rookies. Especially late in the year and into the playoffs. Cirelli could be an exception to that. And it’s ironic that Paquette himself was such an exception. As a professional rookie, he was called up for the last two games of the regular season for the Lightning. He then played in all four of the Lightning’s playoff games.

Could we see something similar happen with Cirelli? At the very least, I think we could be seeing this as an audition for Cirelli. If he can show he’s ready for the NHL and can play a better game on the fourth line than Paquette, he could be securing himself a position on the NHL roster for next season. Paquette is a restricted free agent making $812,500 against the salary cap. He’s due for a new contract and a raise this summer. With how his performance has dropped off from his first two seasons, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Yzerman chose to trade him for a lower round pick.

We have some games left until the end of the regular season. There’s time to watch Cirelli if he sticks around for more than a game or two and see what happens.