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Cirelli's Ascension

July 8, 2019, 7:28 PM ET [15 Comments]
Sam Hitchcock
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
With reports that Brayden Point declined an offer sheet from the Canadiens, and the price tag for Andrei Vasilevskiy rising after Sergei Bobrovsky’s new contract, it is the time of year where musing over value is front and center. And Anthony Cirelli is an interesting player to consider in this conversation. While not yet one of the Lightning’s stars, he is uniquely capable of flourishing in any atmosphere because of his two-way acumen.

As the Lightning were cratering against Columbus in the postseason, coach Jon Cooper shook up the lines to find a spark. One that clicked was the Nikita Kucherov-Steven Stamkos-Cirelli grouping. Aside from the Lightning’s dominant first period in Game 1, the Lightning were getting trounced by Columbus. Every line was sputtering. But one of Cirelli’s talents is his ability to win puck battles and pilfer the puck from opponents. This is how he finished second among Tampa Bay forwards in Corsi Plus-Minus during the regular season. Cirelli’s play on Columbus defenseman Seth Jones in Game 4 is an example of his anticipation and knack for leveraging his body weight to thwart bigger, arguably more skilled players. He proved to be the consummate off-the-puck complement to Kucherov and Stamkos.

With Columbus up 2-0, Jones retreated to recover the puck in the neutral zone. But he fumbled it, and once he regained possession, he tried to puck-handle up the boards. But Cirelli is not the type of player whom you can wiggle by or power through. Cirelli pinned Jones against the boards, leaving him immobile and helpless, and then Cirelli backhand-passed the puck to Kucherov, who steered it toward Stamkos. Stamkos made a nice deke and registered a goal.

According to their reported weights, Jones has 30 pounds on Cirelli. But Cirelli plays the body not the puck, and stopped Jones in his tracks. It was Cirelli’s extra shove that left Jones off-balance and out of position, allowing Cirelli the space to calmly whack the puck forward to Kucherov.

Cirelli did not become the third cog with Kucherov and Stamkos in the Blue Jackets series without a prelude. Cirelli’s ascension during the regular season started when he was given an opportunity in the 3-on-3 overtime. Every possession in 3-on-3 can determine a contest, and Cirelli’s speed and penchant for controlling possession consistently put the Lightning on the attack. Cirelli’s incredible one-on-one triumph over Wayne Simmonds when the Lightning faced the Flyers on November 17th felt like an inflection point. It demonstrated that Cirelli could exert his will against top competition.

Cirelli began playing with Steven Stamkos during four-on-four scenarios, and Cooper would rely on Cirelli to close out games. The climax may have been against Boston on March 25th. Cirelli found a quiet spot, received a pass from Mathieu Joseph and stroked the puck past Tuukka Rask.

The hallmarks of Cirelli’s offense are his capacity to protect the puck under duress – see the list of YouTube videos of him finishing off breakaways despite the pressure on his back – along with that swift release.

Since getting called up in 2017-18, Cirelli has always played with the ferocity of a mongoose, which has made him an asset on the penalty kill and in the bottom six. But it was not immediately clear if he had a future beyond No. 3 center. He almost never saw power play time, even when there were injuries. In an NHL career that spans 121 regular and postseason games, he has one power play point and that was an assist. This should change this year. Last season, Cirelli finished fifth on the team in non-power-play goals.

Cirelli has the ideal attributes to slot into the role of net-front presence on the power play. He is probably the Lightning’s best player at deflecting shots. He is implacable in terms of retrieving the puck, so with any shots that miss the net, he can win the battle to keep Tampa Bay on the attack. He could run an interchange with Point in the bumper spot, which could allow him to turn and fire a quick shot from the mid-slot or distribute to one of the shooters – Kucherov and Stamkos – in the wing position. And he is a good passer, someone who can feed any of three shooters in the 1-3-1 from below the circles. Heck, if the Lightning want Cirelli to attack off the goal line, he is perfectly capable of hammering the puck off the far pad and letting Stamkos crash the backdoor for the rebound chance.

As awesome as the Lightning power play was during the regular season, the net-front presence role was a weak spot. J.T. Miller struggled to finish around the net and seemed more comfortable as a distributor. Ondrej Palat was feckless. He couldn’t score, pass, or retrieve. With Cirelli, the Lightning could have more motion and looks. What last year’s postseason revealed was that the Lightning need more variability so they do not become too predictable. As great as the shooters spread wide across the slot were, this set-up became a crutch.

How Cirelli would fit in the top six at even strength is thornier. Cirelli won 52.8 percent of his faceoffs last year, so the idea of Stamkos and Cirelli taking draws on their strong-side—and going ultra-aggressive because if they got kicked out, an equally good option is waiting in the wings—is delectable. But I think Stamkos might not love alternating faceoffs with another center on a regular basis.

In 19 minutes last year, Point and Cirelli were a -10 Corsi Plus-Minus together, which is horrible. Nevertheless, I think pairing Cirelli with Point makes more sense. Point is worse at faceoffs than Cirelli, and their different styles would theoretically be nice companions. Point would get to be puck-dominant and scoot up the perimeter, while Cirelli could cut through the middle to the net for a quick deke, a deflection, or a retrieval. Point is at his best on the rush and in the slot as a shooter. Cirelli excels around the boards and in the crease. Point’s biggest pitfalls were his inconsistency on the forecheck and how he could be rendered ineffective around the crease. Cirelli’s two biggest strengths are forechecking and making plays around the net.

Cirelli also could reduce the workload that Point assumes in his defensive zone, especially below the circles. And with Cirelli’s crafty stickwork, Point might have more counterattack chances from turnovers.

But ultimately, Cirelli will ameliorate any star’s situation. He finished first on the Lightning in on-ice 5v5 Scoring Chances percentage for a reason. His timing is precise, like a watchmaker’s hand; he knows what angle and what moment to steal possession. What has become evident is that he has the puck skills to notch 30 goals, which makes a person wonder if the Lightning would be wise to preempt his likely breakout season this year and try to extend him as soon as possible, so that they can retain him at a more affordable cap hit.

Of course, salary cap pliancy will only become available if Tampa Bay sheds one of its well-paid veteran forwards. Sloughing off the expendable and securing the crucial is what GM Julien BriseBois is tasked with accomplishing. Assuming the Brayden Point deal is completed in the next few weeks, BriseBois should explore ways to find the cap space to extend Cirelli.
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