While all the media attention has been focused on Nikita Kucherov to start the 2023-24 season, one Tampa Bay Lightning player has not received enough credit for his efforts. Anthony Cirelli season remains one of the most underrated players in the league today. The reason is that his point totals do not measure his impact on the Lightning every game. One may ask, why should Cirelli receive more recognition for his play?
Anthony Cirelli Enjoying Himself Another Solid Season
One intriguing aspect to Anthony Cirelli season is his play away from the puck. The average NHL player possesses the puck for 25 to 35 seconds out of a 60-minute game. In math terms, players have the puck on their stick for roughly one percent of the game. The other 99% of the gameplay is away from the puck. In the end, pretty goals and points grab all the media attention, leaving off-puck specialists like Cirelli underappreciated.
Cirelli keeps his game simple with dump-ins and retrievals on the forecheck. He has been one of the best forecheckers in the league via Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones microstats tracking project. Cirelli ranked in the 98th percentile of forecheck pressures per hour in 2023. He also placed in the 89th percentile of forecheck pressures in 2022.
Furthermore, we have a four-game Tampa Bay Lightning microstats tracking project here at Last Word. The project measures passing, zone entries, and zone exits. Cirelli ranks first in neutral zone forced turnovers with eight.
Recent Offensive Spark
Again, 16 points in 30 games are not elite box score numbers in the modern NHL. However, Cirelli has recorded five goals and seven points in his last six games, including two multi-point performances. Cirelli has found success on offence due to his ability to be open in high-danger areas of the ice. Cirelli ranked in the 68th percentile of shots off high-danger passes in 2023 (All Three Zones).
His career-best numbers came during the 2019-20 season, where Cirelli scored 44 points in 68 games. While he will likely not eclipse those totals, he is starting to find the back of the net. If he can repeat the pace of the last five games, Cirelli may hit 50 points for the first time in his career.
On-ice shot attempt percentages indicate if a player controls the pace of play at 5v5. Cirelli controls 53.81% of the expected goals share at 5v5, which ranks fourth amongst Lightning players. In addition, Cirelli controls 54.78% of the high-danger Corsi attempts at 5v5, which also ranks fourth amongst Lightning players. Cirelli performs well above the team average of 48.97 xGF%. He limits chances against while still generating scoring chances in the offensive zone.
An annual cap hit of $6.25 million per season for the next eight years seems like a hefty price tag for a player who produces mediocre point totals. However, Cirelli makes his deal worth every penny with his play in the defensive zone. Cirelli receives selke recognition every season he is healthy. Despite only appearing in 58 games last season, Cirelli was honored a third-place vote for the trophy.
Impact on Special Teams
Cirelli now contributes to the power play and penalty kill in 2024. While the second power-play unit receives limited ice time from Jon Cooper, Cirelli has three power-play goals this year. Additionally, Cirelli is a beast shorthanded. Cirelli leads all Lightning forwards with seven shots, three takeaways, and seven blocks on the penalty kill. Having a player who can be deadly in nearly any situation is critical to success late in the season.
What This Means in the Future
Swiss army knife players like Cirelli are scarce in the modern NHL. The league has turned black and white in terms of forward roles. The offensive stars disregard the defensive zone, and the defensive forwards do not generate any chances on the attack. However, Cirelli is dominant on both sides of the ice due to his tenacity and conditioning. He rarely looks tired or sluggish on the ice, even after an extended shift.
Another attribute of Cirelli is his ability to play up and down the lineup in any role. He is not a polarizing player who needs specific linemates to find success. The chance generation has always been there, and the offence has arrived for Cirelli. The two-way specialist can gain league-wide recognition if he eclipses 50 points and captures Selke votes.
On-Ice Statistics via Natural Stat Trick
Microstats via Kyle Pereira and Jack Pallotta
Microstats via All Three Zones
Main Photo: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports