Anthony Cirelli: An underappreciated prospect

From Memorial Cup hero to unheralded 3rd round pick, Anthony Cirelli is showing the kind of development that will lead him to the NHL.

When Anthony Cirelli was drafted 72nd overall by the by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the summer of 2015, he was already a big name to those who follow the NHL. Just months earlier, the 17-year old made headlines when he scored the overtime goal in the Memorial Cup finals for the Oshawa Generals. On a team stocked with veterans, it was the undrafted OHL rookie that scored the game winner that gave the Generals their first Memorial Cup since 1995.

Having only 36 points in the OHL to his name, Cirelli’s selection in the top-75 of the NHL Entry Draft might have been a surprise to many – he was ranked as high as 183rd in pre-draft rankings. But Cirelli was a special case. He was one of the youngest players in the draft and while his offensive statistics were less than impressive, he was getting fourth line minutes on an incredibly deep team while playing in a D.J. Smith created system that had a heavy emphasis on defense.

Since draft day, Anthony Cirelli’s stock has gone up, and it’s gone up significantly. As a second-year player, Cirelli was named captain of the Generals and moved all the way up the depth chart to be the team’s top center. He led a re-building Oshawa team in scoring averaging nearly a point per game and earned himself an invitation to Hockey Canada’s World Junior Evaluation Camp this past summer.

Too young to be AHL-eligible, Cirelli was sent back to the OHL for one last season, where Yzerman and the Lightning front office were likely hoping he’d take yet another leap forward in his development. He’s done just that. Through one-fifth of the season, Cirelli currently sits 6th in the OHL in points per game. He’s got 23 points in only 14 games, but what’s most impressive is that he’s producing in 5 on 5 situations – Cirelli sits behind only Alex DeBrincat, Taylor Raddysh, and Owen Tippett with nine 5 x 5 goals.

Cirelli is one of those players that you likely don’t appreciate unless you watch him on regular basis – and being a Generals season ticket holder, I’ve done just that over his OHL career.

Cirelli is an underrated offensive player. He’s creative when carrying the puck and has the ability to create offense through controlled zone entries. He has the ability to create scoring chances for both he and his linemates – something that was wasted by his time playing with inferior wingers last season.

While he’s a creative offensive player, it’s Cirelli’s all-around game that will get him to the NHL. He is a three-zone player that you’re not afraid to play in any situation and thrives when going up against the opposition’s top players.

During the 2015 draft, many were lamenting the fact that Mathew Barzal fell to the 16th pick. Fifty-six picks later, the lightning got something of a ‘Barzal-light’. He’s not quite as talented but they two play a very similar game. Cirelli can line up at either center or wing, he can contribute on both the powerplay and the penalty kill, and he plays with a poise and leadership you’d expect from a much older player.

A Future With the Lightning

It’s no secret that this summer the Lightning are going to have some tough decisions to make. Thanks to big extensions for Stamkos and Hedman this past offseason, the team is facing a severe cap crunch. As it stands now, the team has about $13 million to work with and some big names to re-sign. Trying to fit new contracts for Johnson, Drouin and Palat under the cap will be difficult - if not impossible.

Young players on entry-level contracts become paramount for teams like the Lightning with little cap room and championship aspirations. The emergence of Brayden Point this season has been huge, but adding another few cheap forwards will be a necessity.

Enter Anthony Cirelli.

The young forward has the potential to skip right to the NHL next season without any seasoning in the AHL. Cirelli has the skill set and mature game to play a bottom-6 role and his ability to play left wing could fill a hole on the depth chart if the team is unable to sign one (or both) of Drouin or Palat.

In the sixteen months since being drafted, Cirelli has grown leaps and bounds in Oshawa. In one season, he went from being a guy that many believed might have been drafted little early, to a prospect that could very well have an NHL career that outperforms his draft position. He’s the kind of player that lends credence to the growing ‘late birthday’ draft philosophy.

Maybe I’m biased because I’ve watched him play so much – but I truly believe Anthony Cirelli is a legitimate NHL prospect that many have undervalued.  Yzerman & Co. have to be hoping I’m right. While many believe this is the season Tampa is going all-in - thanks to the inevitable departure of a big name player this offseason, the emergence of cheap players like Point, Cirelli and Stephens would keep the championship window open for a lot longer.

Cirelli will have a chance to show what he can do against tougher competition this week as he will be a key part of Team OHL at the Canada/Russia Series. After being one of the more impressive players at Team Canada’s summer camp, a good showing in the two-game series will go a long way towards helping his chances of making the World Junior team next month.