In Game 6 of the 2020 Eastern Conference Final, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli scored the game-winning overtime goal that knocked the New York Islanders out of the playoffs and moved the Lightning on to the Stanley Cup Final.
This goal was started by Cirelli’s tenacious play and ability to keep things moving. He fought hard to bring the puck into the offensive zone, then rotated in front of the net to take a shot that just barely trickled in. Sure, it wasn’t pretty, but it was the exact kind of goal the Lightning had to score to win.
This goal represents just one aspect of what makes Cirelli such an important player to the Lightning. Yes, he has a solid offensive upside, but he also plays a great defensive game, making him a two-way forward that every team needs to find success.
Due to this, it has been a common point of discussion throughout the playoffs about why ‘Team X’ should acquire Cirelli. As a restricted free-agent (RFA) this offseason, there are even more reasons to believe that there is a possibility for someone to swoop in and pick up one of the Lightning’s top young players.
However, don’t expect the Lightning to just let a player like Cirelli walk away this offseason, even if he would be a perfect fit for your team of choice.
Cirelli Is Everything the Lightning Need Right Now
When he is playing to his full potential, Cirelli fills a role for the Lightning that few other players can. In 2019-20, he posted 16 goals and 44 points in 68 games, along with a Corsi and Fenwick for above 52 percent and tied Brayden Point for a team-high plus-28.
If Cirelli was just a 20 goal-scoring forward, then he would be an easier trade chip for Tampa Bay to move on from. When you take into account his defensive play, however, it becomes more difficult to find his replacement without breaking the bank.
If Cirelli eventually signs a bridge deal this offseason, his extension will likely hit somewhere in the $4 to 5 million cap-hit range. Given his level of production, that would be a fair raise without overpaying him for his services.
A Flat Cap Could Affect Cirelli’s Future With the Lightning
Whenever you have a great RFA on a cap-strapped team, you can expect speculation to follow about their future. For the Lightning, a flat cap in 2020-21 means that an already difficult situation may become impossible.
See, Tampa Bay not only have to re-sign Cirelli, but they also have Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, Mitchell Stephens, and Carter Verhaeghe who are all RFAs this offseason, along with four defensemen becoming unrestricted free-agents. While not every player will demand a premium raise, with only $5.3 million in cap space available right now, they will quickly eat up what little space the Lightning have available.
Due to the number of players needing contracts, this creates a scenario where a team could make an offer sheet on Cirelli, putting the Lightning in a bit of a bind. If it’s anything around the likely $4.5 million that he was going to get anyways, no harm no foul, but if it starts to creep up into the $5.5 to 6 million range, then there could be an issue for Tampa Bay.
When you look at the 2020 Offer Sheet Compensation Breakdown, roughly $6.5 million is the maximum that a team would be willing to give Cirelli, as anything above that would mean they would have to give up a first, second and third-round pick. So, a team with cap space could put an offer sheet on Cirelli for $5.5 million and only give up a 2021 first and third-round pick should the Lightning pass.
While offer sheets rarely happen, $5.5 million and two draft picks would be a worthwhile investment for a team with a talented, young core like the New York Rangers. Given the Lightning’s cap situation, they would have to shed one or two veteran contracts to match this offer sheet while letting players like Stephens and Verhaeghe walk to make ends meet.
Potential Trade Scenarios for Cirelli
Now, it is always possible that Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois looks at his roster and cap situation this offseason and decides that they can live without Cirelli. He is a player that would demand a premium return given his first two seasons in the NHL after all, so it would be an option worth exploring.
If this were to happen, what would BriseBois look for in a trade? While the obvious answer is a first-round pick plus a prospect, it is a bit difficult to gauge what Cirelli is worth on the market.
While the situations are different, the Lightning’s trade of Jonathan Drouin to the Montreal Canadians could be used as a template for a potential Cirelli move. In this scenario, they shipped a 20 goal, 50 point scoring RFA forward to Montreal for Sergachev and a conditional second-round pick.
Using the Rangers as an example, the Lightning could move Cirelli for a top-defensive prospect like Nils Lundkvist or K’Andre Miller, with some conditional picks involved.
While this may be seen as an overvaluation or undervaluation of Cirelli on the trade market, the Lightning shouldn’t move him for nothing. If BriseBois does trade look to make a trade, he should expect a kings’ ransom in return for a top two-way forward.
Will Lightning Re-Sign Cirelli?
Under normal circumstances, BriseBois would sit down this offseason and sign Cirelli to a smart bridge-deal that respects his talents but gives him room to grow. 2020 has been far from normal, however, and this simply may not be possible given the Lightning’s cap situation.
While he should be a key part of their future, a flat cap may force a trade just so Tampa Bay can fill in their roster. Cirelli is an incredible talent that you just don’t let walk away, but the decision may be outside the Lightning’s control if they can’t shed some veteran talent to make space or if an offer sheet is made.
However, if you are the Lightning, you find a way to re-sign Cirelli as he is a talent that you build upon to become a Stanley Cup contender.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.