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Anthony Cirelli is succeeding in his Lightning audition

He’s made an impact in his short time in the NHL, and he’s showing how a couple of other prospects could break into the Lightning.

Arizona Coyotes v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

When Anthony Cirelli was recalled to the Tampa Bay Lightning, I wrote about what his recall could mean for the team. My thought then was that he was auditioning to replace Cedric Paquette on the roster, much like Paquette had an audition leading up to the 2013-14 playoffs.

The early returns have been very good; he did push Paquette out of the lineup, although the injury to Adam Erne has allowed Paquette to step back in. On a side note, I think this break has pushed Paquette, who maybe had gotten a little too content in his position. He’s stepped up his game the past four games and has been playing a better north-south game.

Back to Cirelli, the Erne injury also definitely solidified Cirelli’s position on the third line. Cirelli’s ice time has been building up since his debut. Over the first eight games, he averaged 10:46 TOI per game with a low of 8:14 and a high of 12:53. In the seven games since, he has averaged 15:24 TOI with a low of 13:12 and a high of 17:53. Some of this is due to being used more on the penalty kill, but he’s also gotten more than his fair share of even-strength time.

So what makes Cirelli so good? He’s not a dynamic offensive force. No one is going to mistake him for Nikita Kucherov on the ice. But what he does bring to the ice is a blue-collar attitude. His motor is constantly running and he rarely takes a shift off. He’s got good enough hands to make some shots, but is going to get more of his opportunities in close to the net. He’s an at least average passer and his skill there is more than adequate to get the puck moving to his teammates.

Cirelli’s biggest strength is his board play. He’s listed at around 180 pounds, but he plays like a 200 pound player. He works hard along the boards and you’ll often see him fighting through checks to enter the zone with the puck. At 20 years old, that part of his game is only going to get better as he’s able to gradually add more muscle to his frame. It’s scary to think how much better he would be with another 10 pounds of muscle on him.

With Cirelli’s audition in the NHL, he’s positioned himself to stick in the NHL roster into the playoffs and even out of training camp next season. But something else he’s done is provide a road map for a couple of other Lightning prospects that could be soon following him.

Depending on how the salary cap and contracts go over the next year or two, the Lightning are soon going to be in a position where they need another player or two on entry level contracts to come in and provide cheap depth up front. Cirelli is one of those players who will be cheap for two more seasons. Two other players that fit the mold are Mitchell Stephens and Mathieu Joseph.

All three are very similar players in that they have great hockey IQ and motors that don’t stop. They are hard workers that aren’t afraid to go into the dirty areas. Stephens has a little more offensive upside than Cirelli with some power forward skills in him. Joseph also has more offensive upside than either one with better hands and a better shot. Joseph has a little more of an opportunity to be a solid middle-six forward that can spot on a second line, but is a great third-liner. Stephens and Cirelli most likely top out as third liners, but you never know if one could surprise us and prove to be better, if their offensive skills translate better than expected into the NHL.

For now, Joseph and Stephens will have to continue on in the AHL with the Syracuse Crunch as offensive catalysts for the team. With the Crunch, they are developing the kind of skills that Cirelli has already shown in the NHL. With a little luck and the right opportunity, we could be seeing Joseph and Stephens sooner rather than later in the NHL.