Lightning Should Start Cirelli as Their Third Line Center

When the Tampa Bay Lightning finally got over their postseason hump and won back-to-back Stanely Cups, they did so on the back of an incredibly balanced starting forward lineup. Not only did they feature some of the top scoring talent in the entire league, but they also iced, arguably, the best third-line in the NHL with Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow. This third line helped to change the identity of the team, as it gave them a shut-down defensive presence that could, at a moment’s notice, turn a mistake by their opponent into a goal.

A key component of this success was Gourde, who had been a solid 20 goal-scoring top-six forward for Tampa Bay, but really came into his own when he took over as the centerman on the third line. In this focused role, he distilled the aspects of his game that he excelled at, making him a better player who had a bigger impact on the Lightning despite being technically demoted out of the top six.

Yanni Gourde Tampa Bay Lightning
While he was a top-six, 20 goal-scoring forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Yanni Gourde really came into his own when he was moved down the lineup to take on a full-time role as their third-line center. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

With Gourde selected by the Seattle Kraken at the expansion draft and the rest of that dominant line scattered to the winds, the Lightning find themselves in a difficult position. They now have to build an entirely new third line, which may mean dipping back into their old playbook by giving a top-six forward a different but equally important role with the franchise.

Lightning’s Second Line Has an Identity Crisis With Stamkos and Cirelli

When you look at the Lightning’s starting lineup from the 2020-21 season, you will see that the team often had two natural centermen, Steven Stamkos and Anthony Cirelli, playing on the second line together. While this line found some scoring success, they also lacked a real direction, which often caused them to look a bit muddled when they were on the ice.

See, Cirelli is a defensive specialist who was in the hunt for a 2019-20 Selke Award and is at his best when he is utilizing his incredible hockey IQ to keep play in front of him and opponents off the scoresheet. While he could be a 20 goal-scoring forward if his playstyle was changed some, much of his ice time is evenly split between the offensive and defensive zones or while the Lightning are on the penalty kill, meaning that he is a defensive-first presence.

Detroit Red Wings defenseman Mike Greenand Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli
As Anthony Cirelli developed his game, he became not only one of the best two-way forwards for the Lightning, but also throughout the entire NHL. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Stamkos, on the other hand, excels when he is in the offensive zone, as he can utilize his incredible shot to freeze opponents in their tracks. While he is completely overlooked for his defensive statistics (he has never had a Corsi or Fenwick For below 54 Percent throughout his entire career), this is likely because he spends 60 percent or more of his ice time in the offensive zone or on the power play.

This means that you have two players who have very different game plans trying to split playing time on the Lightning’s second line, which forces one of these players out of their natural center position. Needless to say, this may not be the best utilization of their skillsets, as they both play their best hockey when they are at center.

Lightning Could Find Perfect Third Line Role for Cirelli

With all of this in mind, it would make sense for Tampa Bay to move Cirelli off the second line to take over a full-time role on the third. While this may look like a demotion on paper, as we discussed with Gourde, it is far from it.

Related: Tampa Bay Lightning 2021-22 Season Preview Section

By making Cirelli the third line center, the Lightning would be utilizing his skillset to its full potential. Not only would this allow him to be a full-time centerman again, but he would take over that shut-down defensive role that he is known for. If he is given the right linemates who complement a two-way gameplan, this could allow him to excel in both zones.

Anthony Cirelli Tampa Bay Lightning
While it may not sound like a step forward for his career, Cirelli could find more success by taking over a focused role as the Lightning’s third line centerman instead of playing in the top-six. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So, similar to Gourde, Cirelli could take that next step in his Lightning career by actually moving down in their lineup. While it may sound like a demotion, if he were moved to a full-time role on the third line, it would allow him to get back to the aspects of his game that work best and perhaps, allow him to flourish both on the scoresheet offensive and in the defensive zone to a 2022 Selke nomination.

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