For a third round pick, Anthony Cirelli is surprisingly low on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s list of all-time picks in that round after being drafted in 2015. He nearly put up a 20-goal, 40-point rookie season, anchoring one of the best third lines in hockey while playing a superhuman role on the penalty kill all at the age of 21 (now 22). He had a great first season with the team, filling a role with a level of quality and depth most teams simply do not have.
Unfortunately, Brayden Point and Brad Richards were both also drafted in the third round of their respective drafted so despite how amazing Cirelli’s been, he’s got to slot in quietly behind them. And that’s going to be Cirelli’s career for the foreseeable future: slotting in behind two elite centers doing the dirty work with intensity, relentlessness, and maturity. For a 21-year-old to do all those things in his first year in the league is wildly impressive and a credit to his dedication to development in his junior years.
Career to Date
If you want to read more about Cirelli’s stellar growth and capabilities in junior that blossomed in the NHL, take a look at Tom Hunter’s Top 25 Under 25 piece on Cirelli from 2018. Tom has had a hockey crush on Cirelli since he burst on to the Oshawa Generals as a 17 year old despite going undrafted in the OHL Draft. Remember, all of his accomplishments in the OHL came in the era of Connor McDavid. Cirelli was the one who shut McDavid down in the OHL playoffs when Erie and Oshawa played each other in the OHL Final.
“As an OHL rookie - after going undrafted - Cirelli stepped in and scored a championship-winning goal for the Oshawa Generals at the 2015 Memorial Cup. Not only did he score the overtime winner, but Cirelli scored the only regulation goal for the Gens in that Memorial Cup final. On a team loaded with star veterans, it was the 17-year-old Cirelli who stepped up in the biggest game of the season.”
From there, Cirelli has not stopped. He got drafted by the Lightning in the third round that summer, became captain of the Generals the season after, and made Canada’s World Juniors roster before joining the Erie Otters for a long playoff run that ended in the OHL title. Once his junior career was done, he joined the Syracuse Crunch for a short stint before being immediately sent to the Lightning for the stretch and playoff runs in 2018.
It was a short and steep rise through the Lightning prospect depth charts, rocketing up from #9 in the 2017 Top 25, before going #5 last year, and now #3 this year. It’s really surprising how little time he spent in the minor leagues, but it makes total sense because he’s so well rounded at his young age. He’s already a player coach Jon Cooper can throw on the ice against anyone and not have to worry about making mistakes.
The top three in this year’s class is very obvious so Cirelli did not get a vote lower than third, which is where he ended up. 60% of the writers voted for him in that position, with 40% thinking he’s better than the #2 person in our list. You’ll see who that is tomorrow. Surprisingly, he is the most tightly ranked player since the Ghost of Adam Erne’s Fourth Round Pick at #11.
Play Driving, Responsibility, Versatility
On the right, I’ve compiled Cirelli’s shot metrics from last season and compared him to all forwards who played more than 800 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, which is approximately all players who played 65 games or more. This group covers the 252 most-used forwards in the league or about the first three lines of every team.
In theory, being in the top 93 in a given stat means a player is among the equivalent of first liners. 186 is the bottom threshold for second liners. If you look at all of Cirelli’s stats and where he ranks, he is comfortably among first liners, especially in shot attempts and expected goals against.
This is not a perfect way of comparing players as situation numbers such as zone starts, teammates, and competition affect these numbers greatly. However, judging by Micah Blake McCurdy’s Teammates & Competition chart, Cirelli seems comfortably in the middle-six deployment range against even competition against forwards and defensemen. Basically, he’s not getting any special treatment.
In fact, according to Natural Stat Trick, Cirelli got 40%offensive zone starts, meaning 40% of his non-neutral zone starts were in the offensive zone. By comparison, Point and Steven Stamkos were at 56% and 57% respectively. Cirelli was being given less offensive zone time, but was still able to do so much with it, not allowing the opponents to get chances when they were in the offensive zone while driving play up the ice in order to get chances for himself and his teammates.
The Lightning were a great team last year (playoffs be damned) and their shot differential numbers were right up there. Matt goes into this in more detail in his end-of-season player grades for Cirelli, but Cirelli gave his team a +2% increase in offense when he was on the ice and a -8% improvement in suppressing shots against relative to the team. You can find the charts and their explanations in the first section of his article. Link below:
“His numbers after a full season still sit atop most of the Lightning roster too. At 5v5, he controlled 54% of the shot attempts (second best on the team) while generating an expected goals rate of 56% (also second best).”
In March, Alan wrote about how Cirelli deserved Selke votes for his impact last season defensively. In his piece, he looked at Cirelli’s even-strength and penalty kill impacts. Without giving too much away in case you haven’t read it, Cirelli was one of the best forwards last season on the penalty kill. He was among the best in impacting his team’s defense, while also being one of the most lethal forces offensively while shorthanded.
Another thing that has allowed Cirelli to become one of the most impactful players on his team despite not having the elite talent like others higher in the lineup is the next level determination and willpower he imposes on the defenders against him in the offensive zone. He simply works harder and faster than you and if you’re not ready to react as fast as him, you’re going to be left behind.
This 3-on-3 goal by him to win a game in November against the Philadelphia Flyers shows just how much persistence he has. Just watch how he’s able to muscle his way from Wayne Simmonds after beating him to the puck in the corner before making a bold pivot to the front of the net whipping a shot over Calvin Pickard and in.
It’s one thing to play that hard in the playoffs, it’s another in the second month of the season. Anthony Cirelli is relentless and it’s one of the reasons why he’s been so successful so early in his career.
Looking ahead to next year and beyond, it’s hard to see Cirelli moving up from his third line role with Stamkos and Point* running a one-two punch up the middle for the next half decade. That’s assuming Point and the Lightning can come to a contract that is good for both sides. I think Cirelli is an elite 3C who can do a lot of different things for you (penalty killing, shut down assignments, and 15-20 goals) without requiring many minutes in order to do so.
I think the ice time is a key aspect in all of this. Cirelli averaged just under 15 minutes a night for the Lightning last year, just behind Yanni Gourde who was fourth behind the Big Three. Cirelli isn’t going to be getting the most minutes on his team so making the most out of the time he’s being given is the best thing he can do for himself and the team.
One of the big issues the Leafs had with Nazem Kadri last season was that he wasn’t given enough ice time to fulfill a role that he wanted. Kadri isn’t a bad player. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. Kadri needed a top-six role in order to provide his best value to the team. He just couldn’t do enough like play penalty kill or drive play as well with grinders.
Now the Leafs have Alexander Kerfoot, who is a comparable to Cirelli in my opinion, which means they also think a player with good defensive numbers who is young and fast and hungry is best suited for a role behind two elite centers. First you copy our jerseys, Toronto. Then you steal Brian boyle. Now our center depth? How rude.
I learned a lot about the real-world value of players, especially at center, after watching all three of Cirelli, Kadri, and Kerfoot last season covering the Bolts, Leafs, and Avs. You can’t just slot in four top-line centers on all your lines like in the video games and expect them to all put up 30 or 40 goals. It doesn’t work that way. You have to account for ice time, teammates, player buy in, and a whole host of other things in order to make it work. I think the Lightning have exactly the player they need to fill a role that is often times hard to get right and they expect to have him for a long time.