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Lightning's Anthony Cirelli is playing his way into small club of Selke Trophy candidates

The mainstays for the Selke make it a tough award to capture as a younger player, but Tampa Bay's Anthony Cirelli has turned heads all season with his two-way play and is starting to make his mark as one of the best three-zone players in the NHL.

Given that historically the Selke Trophy has been as much a hierarchy as a meritocracy, it’s even more impressive that at the age of 22, Anthony Cirelli of the Tampa Bay Lightning has been garnering serious consideration for the award this season. In case you haven’t noticed, Selke winners tend to stick around for a while once they arrive on the scene. Patrice Bergeron has won the award four times and been a finalist every season since 2011-12. Anze Kopitar has won two of the past four years. Ryan O’Reilly won his first last season, Mark Stone was a finalist and Sidney Crosby always seems to be a threat to add one to his mantle. Good luck getting through that Murderer’s Row of candidates.

But Cirelli has managed to do that this season. Heck, he might even win the thing. “Well, being in Toronto right now and the fact you’re asking that is a good sign,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “Because that means people are noticing what we’ve been watching. I’ve had a front-row seat for it for a long time. I agree it is a bit of a pay-your-dues kind of award, but I would anticipate he’s going to be in that conversation much sooner than later.”

There are exceptions, but the Selke often goes to older players because traditionally it takes players a few years to figure out how to be 200-foot performers. But that has not been the case with Cirelli, who has been a terrific player at both ends of the ice since he came into the league. And it’s easy to forget that he’ll almost certainly have at least 20 goals this season after scoring 19 in his rookie year last season. Cirelli doesn’t have to cheat for offense because he has come to the conclusion that playing on top of the puck and good defense results in rewards at the other end of the ice.

Cirelli, who scored both goals, including the overtime winner, in the 2015 Memorial Cup final for the Oshawa Generals, credits his coach with the Generals with making him into the player he is today. That’s part of the reason D.J. Smith is currently behind an NHL bench these days.

“He kind of taught me that you have to be good at both ends of the ice if you want to play,” Cirelli said. “Coming here, ‘Coop’ is the same way. He’s trying to make sure you play that full 200-foot game. I knew that if I wanted to be effective, I had to be able to do that. I think it’s helped my game a lot and helped me get to where I am today.”

Cirelli is not a terribly large man at 6-feet and 193 pounds, but he plays what hockey people like to call a ‘hard’ game. He rarely gets caught out of position and unlike a lot of young players, is not constantly thinking offense first. Playing for the Lightning has made that a necessity because there’s little chance Cirelli would be able to run with the team’s big offensive stars, so he tries to have an impact in different ways.

“Anyone who’s in that conversation, when you really look at them, they win their puck battles,” said Lightning teammate Kevin Shattenkirk. “His skating ability allows him to recover really well on plays, but his strength on his stick when he bears down on pucks in 50-50 battles is something that, for a player his age to be doing that, is pretty unbelievable stuff. When he goes into the corner, you know that nine times out of 10, he’s going to come out with that puck. He’s a very mature player for his age.”

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Cirelli is accomplishing so much on both sides of the puck as he is at such a young age. After all, players are coming into the league better prepared to play with and against the best players in the world than ever before. It should probably come as no shock that young ones such as Cirelli are being better groomed to be all-round players.

“The best players in the world, OK, Sid and some of the elder statesmen are still in there, but you start looking at the best players and they’re all kids,” Cooper said. “It has become a little bit of a young stars league and I think it’s no different if you’re Connor McDavid and you’re filling the net or you’re Anthony Cirelli and you’re checking. A lot of the kids are opening people’s eyes and it’s probably good for the game.”

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