An X-factor player is not usually the best competitor on the team, as they’re expected to perform at the level they have been in seasons prior. Rather, it’s a player whose performance could have a massive impact on how well the team does during the season and into the postseason.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are already a star-studded team with tons of explosive talent throughout the lineup. However, we are already aware that star forward and 2019 Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov is missing the entirety of this regular season with a hip injury that requires surgery.
Without Kucherov in the lineup every night, there will be a lot of points left on the table, so someone will have to step up their game. Kucherov finished seventh in the league with 86 points through 68 games last season. He was 11th in goals with 33 tucks and eighth in assists providing 52 helpers last season. Whose play will be enough to fill the void left by Kucherov and get the Lightning back to the playoffs for the fourth season in a row?
My pick for this year’s Tampa Bay Lightning X-factor player is two-way centerman, Anthony Cirelli.
Cirelli’s the Man
The Lightning re-signed the young forward this offseason to a three-year, $14.4 million deal. The third-round selection from the 2015 NHL Draft made his debut in ‘The Show’ during the 2017-18 season where he put up 11 points in 18 NHL games before he finished the season with the Lightning’s AHL team, the Syracuse Crunch. His performance in his final season with Syracuse, 2017-18, of 37 points in 51 games urged the Lightning to offer him a permanent spot on the roster.
Cirelli has become known as one of the top defensive forwards in the league over the last two seasons. In his first full season, 2018-19, he netted 19 goals and helped on 20 others for 39 points through 82 games, while finishing in the top-10 for shorthanded points in the league. It’s almost a lock that when the Lightning are on the penalty kill, he’s on the ice and ready to move the puck for as long as it’s needed.
During the COVID-19 shortened 2019-20 season, he put up 16 goals and 28 assists which were good for 44 total points in 68 games. That’s five more points while playing 14 fewer games to the season prior. He wasn’t competing against any slouches during last season either, as he lined up against the opposition’s best players night in and night out.
His play during the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs isn’t something to glance over either. Cirelli scored the goal in the Eastern Conference Final that ended the New York Islanders season and sent the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final. (from ‘Anthony Cirelli a fitting hero for this Lightning moment,’ Tampa Bay Times, 09/18/2020) He finished with three goals and six assists for nine points after playing the entire 25 games needed to hoist the Cup.
The NHL regular season has been shortened to 56 games and he’s already performing at a point-per-game pace with a goal and three assists through four games. His proven ability to do well in multiple line combinations and being responsible at both ends of the ice while facing stiff competition shows us that we possibly haven’t seen the best that the kid brings to the table. If he could finish around the 50 to 55-point mark, I think it would be a big help for the team as they try to make it back to the postseason.
Lightning Still a Strong Team Without Kucherov
Without Kucherov being around to net most of the pucks this season, I expect Cirelli to take the next step in his game and be a huge contributor to the Lightning finishing in the top spot in their newly realigned division.
Even if Cirelli doesn’t take a big step this season, the Lightning are still stacked with enough talent to find their way to the playoffs. With a healthy captain in Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and arguably the best defensemen in the league in Conn Smythe winner Victor Hedman, they could become the first NHL team to go back-to-back since the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins.