TAMPA BAY – Depth is everything in the NHL today and one of the many reasons the Tampa Bay Lightning have been the dominant team in the league this season. Even if you manage to stave off the offensive salvos of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson and even if you manage to get a power play, you still have to deal with rookie center Anthony Cirelli, who leads the squad with five shorthanded goals.
Stop me if you’re heard this before, but Cirelli wasn’t even drafted in the OHL. He signed as a free agent with the Oshawa Generals, before coming on strong in his draft year and scoring both goals – including the overtime winner – at the 2015 Memorial Cup against Leon Draisaitl’s Kelowna Rockets. That strong second half prompted the Lightning to draft him 72nd overall in the summer of 2015 and after helping the Erie Otters win an OHL title two years later, Cirelli started his pro career with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch. He worked his way into the Tampa Bay lineup last year (but is still Calder eligible this season) and played in all 17 playoff games. This year, Cirelli has been a key cog in Tampa’s bottom six.
“He doesn’t give up on pucks,” said linemate and fellow youngster Mathieu Joseph. “He’s a great two-way player and it’s rare to see responsible guys who are that young. He brings so much to the table.”
Clutch play is a huge part of Cirelli’s resume and he’s one of the top Lightning scorers in terms of game-winning goals (I like to call him ‘Baby Justin Williams’), but his work on the penalty-kill is what has made him a standout for coach Jon Cooper. Cirelli actually leads all NHL forwards in shorthanded ice time. Cooper half-joked that it’s because the Bolts take too many penalties, but there’s a reason he keeps sending No. 71 over the boards.
“Obviously Coop trusts me to go out there and get the job done,” Cirelli said. “I think it’s a whole group that starts with the goalies back there and then you work your way up the ‘D’ group, who come up with key shot-blocks all the time. I think we work really well as a unit.”
That’s a lot of humble hockey talk, so let’s go back to Joseph to find out why Cirelli himself has been that difference-maker shorthanded.
“He’s great at anticipating where the puck is going and he’s good at reading plays,” Joseph said. “I’m not surprised; he was good on the PK in Syracuse last year and he’s been good on the PK for us here this year.”
One of the reasons Tampa Bay has been so successful this year is that Cooper has been able to spread out his players’ ice time. Naturally the stars drive the bus, but when you can count on a player such as Cirelli to give you 15 minutes a night, providing speed, two-way play and secondary scoring, it makes everyone’s job easier.
With a handful of games left in the regular season, Cirelli had 18 goals and 37 points. It would be pretty impressive if he was able to hit the 20-goal plateau, and/or 40 points.
“I’ve got an opportunity here and I’m just kind of sticking with it,” Cirelli said. “The guys have been unbelievable and the coaching staff has been great in helping me out. There’s definitely not a lot to complain about and it’s been a lot of fun so far.”
What would be even more fun is if Cirelli helped Tampa Bay win the franchise’s second-ever Stanley Cup this season. It’s been 15 years since the first one and the Lightning certainly have the squad to make it happen. And Cirelli does have a history of scoring very important goals.
“He was a good goal-scorer, he got the winning goal in the Memorial Cup and he was always that guy,” Cooper said. “I remember Steve Yzerman telling me when we drafted him, ‘That’s a Jon Cooper player. You’re going to love that kid.’ ”
And clearly, Stevie Y did not lie.