Tampa Bay Lightning’s centerman Anthony Cirelli made his season debut against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, after recovering from offseason surgery. He made an immediate impact in his first game back with two assists, one of which was the overtime winner by Alex Killorn. They won 4-3 over the visiting Maple Leafs to stay third in the Atlantic Division. As one of the best two-way players in the NHL, the Lightning are a better team with Cirelli in the lineup.
What Cirelli Brings to the Lightning’s Offense
Playing in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), Cirelli scored 36 points for the Oshawa Generals, which caught the attention of the Lightning who drafted him in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft. He signed a three-year entry-level contract and played in the juniors until being called up on March 1, 2018. As a rookie, he made an immediate impact by scoring a goal and an assist in his first NHL game.
Since then, Cirelli has played in 294 games and scored 159 career points. He has also made his presence known during the playoffs by adding 14 goals and 34 points in 92 career postseason games. The 25-year-old was a priority for Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois to retain this past summer, as he signed him to an eight-year contract extension worth $6.25 million average annual value (AAV).
Cirelli’s value is measured by his hustle on the ice, often scoring on breakaways. In addition, he has developed into one of the best two-way forwards in the game, and is especially effective on the penalty kill. His play as a defensive forward has made him a finalist for the Selke Trophy for several years.
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In his first game this season, coach Jon Cooper slotted him into the third line with Vladislav Namestnikov and Ross Colton, both of whom scored rare goals. The Lightning also hope that Cirelli can help them in the faceoff circle, as the team is ranked 20th in the league. Over his career, he has averaged a 48.7 winning percentage for faceoffs.
The Defense Should Benefit From Cirelli’s Return
When Zach Bogosian returned a few weeks ago, the Lightning’s defense added a veteran player that adds a big, bulky body that was already in mid-season form. Adding Cirelli, a defensive-minded centerman, into the lineup should benefit the defense too.
In five seasons, Cirelli has scored nine short-handed goals. He is always a threat to steal the puck and take it coast-to-coast for a break-away goal. However, he can also retrieve pucks, deflect passes and block shots to support his goaltender. Since his first year in the NHL in 2017-18, he is a plus-81.
The Lightning’s defense is not ranked in the top ten in any major category, including goals allowed, which is at 3.08 (ranked 14th), and penalty kill, which is averaging 77.9% (ranked 20th). Although it’s a small sample size, with Cirelli’s return on the penalty kill, the team only allowed one power-play goal on five attempts by the Maple Leafs. He is a feared opponent when his team is shorthanded, playing nearly 452 minutes on the penalty kill over the past three years.
Cirelli Is a Playoff Star
Winning two Stanley Cups and advancing to the Stanley Cup Final three consecutive seasons, the Lightning depend on offense and defense to win those hard-fought battles in the postseason. Cirelli has made an enormous impact in his 92 postseason starts, scoring 14 goals and 20 assists. He also scored a short-handed goal during the first-round of the 2021-22 Eastern Conference playoff series against the Maple Leafs.
Throughout last season’s playoff run, Cirelli’s line, consisting of Killorn and Brandon Hagel, shut down the high-flying offenses of the Leafs, Florida Panthers, and New York Rangers before being stymied by the eventual champions, the Colorado Avalanche.
If the Lightning are to secure a playoff spot this season, they will need their speedy center to continue his regular season and playoff dominance. With Cirelli’s veteran presence, the team has stability and a player with postseason experience.
The Lightning are a better team when Cirelli is on the ice. His two-way play, explosive speed, and smart moves with and without the puck have made him an invaluable member of a team that is loaded with superstars.
Lydia Szyjka is a writer for The Hockey Writers. Growing up in Tampa, she graduated from H.B. Plant High School—never dreaming her Tampa Bay Lightning would win three Stanley Cups. She is director of communications for a Catholic university, where she is the editor of the alumni magazine. An avid hockey fan, she and her husband live in Delaware and watch every Lightning game on the NHL’s Center Ice.