Entering his fifth NHL season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Anthony Cirelli has cemented his status as a winner in hockey. From midget to major junior to the NHL, all Cirelli does is win championships. He’s been a critical piece of the Lightning’s back-to-back championships and is closing on being a perennial candidate for the Selke Trophy. The balance that Cirelli brought to the lineup cannot be understated. It’s because of him that coach Jon Cooper can place Steven Stamkos on the wing. It’s because of him that the penalty kill found stability after years of inconsistency. It’s because of him that Brayden Point’s line can be unleashed to overwhelm the opposition without worrying too much about the defensive side of the ice.
Since being drafted by the Lightning 72nd overall in 2015 the young center has appeared in 218 NHL games and registered 116 points, good for 0.53 points per game through his first four seasons. Not bad for a player who was projected to be a third-liner in the NHL.
The biggest reason why Cirelli is ranked #2 is due to his body of work over his Lightning career. It’s hard to argue against his impact and play-driving capability. The wrinkle to his ranking is a portion of us at Raw Charge ranked him third this year due to how much his play regressed overall. I voted Erik Cernak at #2 this year with Cirelli taking the #3 spot, something that I thought long and hard about.
Between 2018 to 2020 Cirelli looked every bit of a legit top-six center offensively and defensively. Last season saw a noticeable dip in his performance, but none more so than on the defensive side of the puck. Whether that was due to increased ice time against top competition or just an off-year is unclear. However, Cirelli’s defensive struggles were buoyed by the rise of the Yanni Gourde line (which played more than Cirelli’s line later in the season and the playoffs). That balance was crucial in two raising two Stanley Cups.
There is also the possibility that he was dealing with a wrist injury. Shortly after the Stanley Cup was skated around Amalie Arena, Erik Erlendsson reported that Cirelli had played through a wrist injury that would require surgery. Those types of injuries can seriously affect the play of centers (see: Johnson, Tyler). If he is healed and ready to go for the season, that could be a help to his game.
With Gourde’s line gone, and a new-look third line still unproven, the onus shifts back to Cirelli to show that 2021 was just an off-year. The best-case scenario would see Cirelli return to 2020 form. The worst-case would see the young pivot regress even further. Given Tampa Bay’s track record with forwards, expecting a positive bounce back makes a lot of sense.
Still, the biggest thing holding Cirelli back is his finishing ability. It’s the largest issue that has held him back from fully “breaking out” into a top-tier second-line center. Currently, he still grades out as a good second-line center, but the Lightning needs Cirelli to elevate his offensive game even more with Gourde being gone. With our #5 Under 25 player, Mathieu Joseph, seemingly locked for the right-wing slot on his line there is a clear effort to give Cirelli’s line a different look entering 2022. I’m optimistic that it will end up being the right call.
This took a more negative tone than I intended, but the overarching feeling with Cirelli is positive. He’s a damn good center and should still be one for years to come, and if he merely levels off somewhere between his effectiveness in 2020 and 2021 then it’s a collective win for the Lightning.
Regardless, Big Game Tony is here to stay, and the Lightning faithful won’t be seeing #71 any less in the coming years.