Anthony Cirelli: After Breakout Season, What’s Next For Lightnings’ RFA Forward?
The Tampa Bay Lightning closed out the Stanley Cup Final Monday night, with a 2-0 victory over the Dallas Stars.
It was one of the most dominating Cup clinching games in recent history, as Tampa Bay dominated the majority of the game until the Stars made their one final push at the end of the game.
After getting swept last year by the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Lightning redeemed themselves this season, in a completely new setting and playoff format. Instead of the usual 16 teams, because of the COVID-19 stoppage, the NHL expanded the playoffs to 24, to give those on the bubble a second chance since they couldn’t finish the season.
The Lightning endured, despite playing in a bubble, on the road in Canada, and captured the league’s highest honor.
Despite all of what they went through to get there, the offseason is going to bring its own level of difficulty for the front office.
Tampa Bay suffers from an issue that many would love to have, a surplus of talented players. With have so many star players, it also means that they have to work against the salary cap on a yearly basis.
This year may be the biggest test for the organization, as they have to not only replenish a soon to be depleted blue line, but get two more of their rising stars under contract.
And they have just over $5 million in cap space, according to CapFriendly, to do so.
The two biggest names up for a new contract are forward Anthony Cerelli and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev with steady, stay-at-home rising blue liner Erik Cernak also
It was a breakout season all three, but maybe more so for Cerelli, who finished fourth in the voting for the Selke Trophy, which is given out to the best defensive forward in the league. The 23-year old Cirelli received 13 first placed votes, and looking at his advanced numbers for this past season it’s easy to see why he is one of the best defensive forwards in the league.
Watching Cirelli play, there is no doubting his two-way play far beyond of a lot of players his age. In fact only Auston Matthews is younger than Cirelli among players who received votes.
But just how good of a season did Cirelli have? And what kind of impact is that going to have on not only the Lightning but the rest of the league?
Cirelli: Elite Defensive Metrics
When it comes to Cirelli’s play in his own end, few posted better numbers when it came to suppressing and limiting opponent’s opportunities.
*All numbers from Natural Stat Trick, adjusted for score and venue and based on forwards with at least 700 minutes at 5v5 (249 total).
You just weren’t scoring, or getting the chance to score while Cirelli was on the ice, finishing near the top in each metric, all the while starting the majority of his shifts in the defensive zone.
So despite starting with his back against the wall, Cirelli was able to drive play to the other end of the ice all the while stonewalling his opposition.
Cirelli wasn’t an official finalist for the Selke, but at one of the youngest players on the ballet this year, it won’t be too long before he has his name called as an eventual winner. When that happens, is it going to be in a Lightning jersey?
Offer Sheet Off Season?
With no change in the salary this coming season, the Lightning will have to make some franchise altering decisions, and there’s a good chance that they won’t come to an agreement with Cirelli before the free agency period begins.
That of course brings annual speculation of a potential offer sheet by another team, trying to drive up the price of resigning another teams player. That of course isn’t a common occurrence, as you generally not only have to overpay for any said player, but you can lose quite a bit of draft picks depending on how much the deal is worth.
There has already been some talking about how Cirelli is a prime player to be signed to an offer sheet, but of course there are two things to remember with that - the player has to agree to any contract, and his original team has seven days to match it.
While Tampa Bay would love to keep Cirelli, they may be the team in the least position to actually respond to any offer sheet, being so tight to the cap and having also to worry about Sergachev, who is also a restricted free agent.
Cirelli might be the easiest player to move currently, and probably the one who would net the greatest return.
Most of the top players on the Lightning currently under contract for multiple years have a no trade clause in their contract that will allow them to veto any potential move if it is to an unwanted location.
Of the projected seven highest forwards for the Lightning next season, in terms of cap hit, only Brayden Point, and we know he isn’t going anywhere after scoring the game-winning goal in game six.
As a restricted free agent, Tampa Bay could trade his rights away, and thanks to his age and level of success thus far in his career, could get a significant return for Cirelli.
They could also try and sign him to a long-term deal, but how much could he net on a new deal? We know about his defensive prowess, but what is his upside offensively?
Projecting A New Deal, Offensive Upside
The Lightning have no shortage of offensively gifted forwards on their roster. Point was a third round pick that has quickly become one of the best forwards in the game. Nikita Kucherov is arguably still the best winger in the game.
In just three minutes of ice-time, we saw how captain Steven Stamkos can impact a game, netting a goal before reaggravating the same injury that kept him out most of the season.
So having an elite-level defensive minded forward on a rookie level deal was a luxury for Tampa Bay, so if they are going invest heavily on Cirelli, what is is upside on the offensive side of things.
*Individual numbers based off of 5v5 play, according to Natural Stat Trick
Cirelli was an above average offensive player, and was actually creeping towards elite status as a playmaker, with his primary assist rate in the 83rd percentile.
His actual goal rate and his expected rate are nearly the same, meaning he shouldn’t be in for too much of a regression. He has scored 35 total goals the last two seasons, 19 of which came in 2018-2019.
Already in the midst of a career-high season when it came to points, when the COVID-19 stoppage came, Cirelli was on pace to top 50, scoring 44-in-68 games.
Now a look at how Cirelli has influenced play while he has been on the ice. Despite starting a high majority of shifts in the defensive zone, he hasn’t let that keep him from driving play to the opponent’s side of the ice.
His possession numbers are even better when you remember that only 45.87% of his shifts starting in the offensive zone, the 52nd lowest mark in the league.
Cirelli has used his defensive play to completely tilt the ice in his favor, as any of the goal-share metrics you want to look at rank in the 89th percentile or higher. Not only does he suppress opponent’s scoring opportunities, he turns around creates for his team.
According to Evolving-Hockey.com’s contract projections, which take into account projected salary cap numbers and a player’s production (while comparing to those similar to him), Cirelli’s deal could cost about $34.872 over six years (a $5.812 million cap hit).
An offer sheet, in theory, would have to be significantly higher than this to make it harder for the Lightning to match. Based off Cap Friendly, signing a player to an AAV in the range of $6,544,641-to-$8,726,188 would cost a team a first, second, and third round pick in next year’s draft.
If that’s the return that Tampa Bay would receive, they would be better off exploring trade options in which they could get a return that may do a little better in terms of immediate help.
Whatever they decide to do, they will do after doing everything in there power to make a Cirelli deal work. Letting a player like him go, at his age, and with what he has already done, isn’t an ideal situation for any franchise.
While Cirelli may never be the second, third, or even fourth most talked about Lightning player, there is no doubting that his ever-expanding skill set was key to their Stanley Cup run, and any other run they make in the future.
What do you think the Lightning are going to do with Cirelli? If they work out a contract extension with him, what moves happen to free up room for him? What ought to be a minimum return needed to move him to another team? Let me know in comments below and follow me on Twitter @AJ_Murfy.