When talking about players on the Tampa Bay Lightning, the same five names usually get thrown around — Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy. They’re the core pieces to a team many believe to be Stanley Cup contenders this season, and while they might set the pace for the offense, they can’t do all the work. That’s where players like Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph come in.
The trio each wears the No. 7 in some capacity — Killorn is No. 17, Cirelli is No. 71 and Joseph is No. 7 — but that’s not what makes them special. Instead, they play a different game than the first two lines on the Lightning, providing strong checking and a 200-foot game that makes it easier for head coach Jon Cooper to match them with an opponents’ first or second line.
The 200-Foot Game
In his first full NHL season last year, Cirelli established himself as one of the best up-and-coming two-way forwards in the NHL. He finished 11th in Selke Trophy voting for the league’s best two-way forward, an honor he someday might win, and he’s back at it again this season going end to end. So far, he leads the team with six takeaways — that’s expected after he finished third on the team in that statistic last season. However, right behind him are Killorn and Joseph with five and four takeaways, respectively, which is a little less expected.
Both Killorn and Joseph had more takeaways than giveaways last year, but they were still eighth and ninth on the Lightning, respectively. If this line continues to play well, their numbers should increase because of the style of their game. Joseph is the fastest of the three and can get up and down the ice quickly, whereas Cirelli is arguably the best neutral zone defender of the trio. Killorn, the veteran of the line, is always in good position and can read the play if the other two are looking for a quick breakout. If one of them is forechecking, the other two are able to anticipate the play and create offensive-zone or neutral-zone turnovers and more offensive chances. It’s not the flashiest style of hockey, but it sure is essential.
Defensive Zone Starts
According to Hockey Reference, Killorn and Cirelli and third and fourth on the Lightning in defensive zone start percentage (DZS%) at 67.3% and 66.1%. This measures how many of their total faceoffs were in the defensive zone, and it’s no surprise they take almost all of the defensive zone draws. Above them are fourth-liner Luke Witkowski (73.9%) and Gemel Smith (69.2%), who is now in the American Hockey League. Cooper trusts Cirelli and Killorn to be responsible in their zone, and rightfully so.
The outlier for this statistic is Joseph, who is 13th in DZS% at 54%. To be fair, he has only taken two faceoffs this season while the other two have taken a combined 117, but Joseph is seventh in offensive zone start percentage (OZS%) at 46%. For this line, Joseph is the go-to guy to create offensive chances. His Corsi for percentage (CF%) at even strength is 54.6%, meaning the Lightning are controlling the puck more often than not when he’s on the ice. If they don’t have the puck, Cirelli and Killorn will work to get it, and when they do, Joseph will be the guy to take it into the offensive zone and create chances.
How They’re Used
To no one’s surprise, the line used the most for the Lightning, according to Frozen Tools, is the Kucherov-Point-Stamkos line. The next closest is Cirelli, Killorn and Ondrej Palat, a combination used earlier in the season, but the Killorn-Cirelli-Joseph trio has been used 5.22% of the time this season, or fourth-most among all of their combinations. But, the top shorthanded pair used by the team? Cirelli and Killorn at 3.63% of the time.
It’s no surprise Cirelli is once again on the top penalty-killing unit since he was second in the league with five shorthanded goals last season. He added 14 takeaways versus 1 giveaway on the penalty kill and a 52.1% faceoff percentage. Killorn also had a goal and an assist while down a man in 2018-19, and he had seven takeaways versus four giveaways while shorthanded. As a 21-year-old last year, Joseph also saw time on the penalty kill and had two assists, four takeaways and one giveaway.
So far while shorthanded, Joseph had one block and one takeaway. Killorn has two blocks and three takeaways, and Cirelli has one takeaway as well. However, Cirelli has won just nine of 23 faceoffs this season. That could be part of the reason the Lightning have given up a league-worst nine power-play goals. But, if he can get back to his 52.8% clip from last year, the Lightning’s penalty kill should get much better.
This line isn’t going to light up the score sheet, but they’re going to provide a strong defensive game that’s responsible in their own zone. The team has had their issues so far in their own zone and playing strong team defense, but the “seven” line has been soaring since they have been constructed.