After an 11-point, 18-game debut during the 2017-2018 season, and a solid 39-point rookie season with 19 goals, the next season, expectations for Anthony Cirelli were high entering the 2019-2020 season. The prevailing thought was that he would improve his offensive game while securing a shutdown center role for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The offensive counting numbers weren’t as impressive as some hoped, especially in the postseason, but Cirelli’s impact on the Tampa Bay Lightning was noticeable every night. Without his contribution and determination, the Lightning don’t lift the 2020 Stanley Cup.
The 23-year old’s rise through the Lightning’s depth chart was swift and impressive. Coaches and fans alike quickly adored the tenacity and discipline he brought to the table in and hoped 2020 would bring an offensive breakout for the young center. That didn’t happen in the manner many thought, but a 16-goal, 44-point season in 68 games was still a strong showing. Cirelli was on pace for a 19-goal 53-point season had the NHL gone a full 82 games. Given the offensive firepower the Lightning boast, a campaign like that from their number two center is acceptable.
Where Cirelli garnered most of his accolades, however, was on the defensive side of the puck. His reputation as a capable two-way center stems from his days in junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals, and his ability to alleviate that burden off of Brayden Point opened up matchup nightmares for the opposition.
The chart above from Hockeyviz shows how effective the Lightning was at maintaining offensive pressure while limiting the opposition’s chances with Cirelli on the ice. Even without the visual representation, Cirelli’s numbers were impressive; CF% 52%, xGF% 55%, and out-chancing opponents 436-348 (55%), all while tasked with suppressing the opposition’s best offensive players. For a 23-year old forward to excel in that manner without having an elite offensive toolkit is impressive.
There are some negatives to annotate: his faceoff capabilities, overall, weren’t impressive during the 2020 season. He won 47% of his draws compared to 52% in 2019. The debate on the importance of faceoffs is a rather contentious one between hockey minds, but for many a quick glance of a top-six center’s ability to consistently win faceoffs remains paramount. However, it is important to enunciate the volume of faceoffs laid out for Cirelli; no Lightning forward took (649) or won (305) more faceoffs than he did this season.
He also doesn’t have the typical array of offensive skills one would like from a top-six center. This isn’t to say Cirelli isn’t good offensively, but his playmaking ability isn’t an area that stands out compared to other top-six centers in the league. His shot is adequate, but not something that draws attention to itself. Normally, attributes like this would push a player down the lineup into a safer role, but Cirelli’s defensive acumen combined with his speed, tenacity, and uncanny ability to find a way to score critical goals is something that is hard to deny.
No span of play demonstrated this moreso than the Return-to-Play playoffs. Cirelli struggled mightily from a production standpoint during the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup (3 goals and 9 points in 25 games). He also struggled to maintain his high level of possession and control against top competition during the first two rounds of the playoffs. He did manage to turn things around in the Eastern Conference Final and the Stanley Cup Final. So much so, that he ended up being positive in possession after everything was said and done: 52% CF%, 52% xGF%, and out-chancing the opposition 166-160.
It’s unclear what the issue for him was during the early part of the playoffs, whether it was confidence, bad luck, or the moment being a little too much, but that didn’t stop him from pushing forward and still impacting the game. Two of his three goals ended up being critical ones for Tampa Bay.
Sometimes, it pays to be lucky and in the right spot. We all know what happened in overtime after Cirelli tied the game.
And, of course...
Point had the more spectacular playoff overtime goals, but for a player that struggled to contribute on the scoresheet while tackling shutdown minutes, this goal sent a surge of joy throughout Lightning fandom, for multiple reasons.
So, where does that leave us with Cirelli? In my mind, he’s clearly the third-best under-25 player in the organization, and, as has been the case at the higher end of these rankings, the readers and writers agree.
He’s also an important part of the Lightning’s core moving forward, which makes his current RFA status worrying. Tampa Bay doesn’t have much wiggle room under the salary cap, and there hasn’t been any player movement from Julien BriseBois to free up space for Cirelli and Erik Cernak’s new contracts.
Regardless, BriseBois expects to retain the young center. It just remains to be seen how he intends to do so.
For the sake of all of Lightning fandom, here’s to hoping he pulls it off.