QUEBEC CITY - The OHL's Oshawa Generals come at you in waves. They managed to take down Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome in the OHL playoffs thanks to their depth and they're doing it again at the Memorial Cup, going undefeated in the round robin and earning a bye to the final against Kelowna.
Cole Cassels and Michael McCarron are the top two centers on the squad, but another pivot has been crucial as well. His name is Anthony Cirelli and if you don't know him, you're not alone.
Passed over twice in the OHL draft, Cirelli joined the Generals as a free agent this summer and now he's centering New York Islanders pick Michael Dal Colle - the most dangerous offensive player on the team. Cirelli actually signed a contract with the Jr. A Mississauga Chargers, but coach Joe Washkurak, who is also a scout for Oshawa, got him a camp invite with the Gens.
“I didn't really have any attention on me in my minor midget or midget season," Cirelli said. "I didn't play on the best team and I was coming out of double-A. No one really talked to me, it was really just me on my own working hard and pushing.”
Cirelli impressed at camp and in the pre-season, earning him a slot on the powerful Generals. That surprised even his teammates, such as captain and Florida Panthers prospect Josh Brown.
“He's been unbelievable for us," Brown said. "We started playing games and I thought 'wow, this kid can play.' I had no idea how he slipped through the cracks to us. For a small kid, he's not afraid to go to the hard areas. He goes to the front of the net, he digs at the goalie – he doesn't care; he gets in the scrums. His work ethic is unbelievable and it's been a pleasure having him on our team this year.”
Though his point totals (36 in 68 games) weren't crazy this season, Cirelli was impossible to miss in live viewings thanks to his tenacity. And given that the Generals will lose Cassels and McCarron to the pro ranks next year, the six-foot 160-pounder will become all the more important. And the NHL has taken notice too, inviting Cirelli to this year's draft combine in Buffalo.
"He just works so hard," said coach D.J. Smith. "He plays off the cycle, which I'm sure the pro teams love, and he's a team guy. He does everything for the team."
And while playing with a talent such as Dal Colle may seem easy, it does take a capable pivot to keep up with the sniper. Thanks to Cirelli, opponents have to deal with three sick lines when they play Oshawa and hardly anyone has been able to solve the puzzle.
“We play down low," Cirelli said. "We grind it out, play behind the net, try to finish every hit we can and physically dominate the other team.”
Cirelli may not have a huge frame, but he also knows he has time to add weight as he develops in Oshawa. The teen from the northern Toronto suburb off Woodbridge also wants to get a quicker release on his shot and get up and down the ice more like Jonathan Toews, a player he greatly admires.
And while Cirelli will have to wait a few years before he goes for the Stanley Cup, he and his Oshawa mates are on the cusp of a similarly prestigious trophy in Quebec City. From undrafted free agent to Memorial Cup champion? That would be a pretty cool story in itself.