Lightning’s Anthony Cirelli adds a scoring touch to his defensive focus

Coach Jon Cooper thinks Cirelli’s name could be synonymous with Patrice Bergeron one day.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) skates onto the ice as he is named the number three star of the game with the game winning goal as the Bolts win 5-4 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Monday, March 25, 2019. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) skates onto the ice as he is named the number three star of the game with the game winning goal as the Bolts win 5-4 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Monday, March 25, 2019. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published March 26, 2019|Updated March 27, 2019

TAMPA — Derek Lalonde, still in his skates after a recent practice, makes his way to the dressing room, laptop in hand.

The Lightning assistant coach searches for Anthony Cirelli but can’t find him.

Lalonde returns later, and the two sit down at the center’s stall, the latter without even removing his pants, shin pads or skates, to review video clips selected by Lalonde. They look at Cirelli’s recent play offensively and defensively, and other clips to prepare for upcoming opponents.

“He’s always hounding for video,” Lalonde said. “There’s days I don’t have video for him and he’s literally down on me.”

Coaches and players alike have a lot to say about Cirelli, including universally complimenting his work ethic. Coach Jon Cooper said he has the potential to be another Patrice Bergeron, one of only two players to be a four-time winner of the Selke Trophy, given to the game’s best two-way forward.

If Cirelli rises to that level, it’ll be in part because of his work ethic. Lalonde didn’t find Cirelli the first time he went looking for him after that recent practice because Cirelli was still on the ice.

Bet on Cirelli being one of the last players off the ice, often with fellow forwards Yanni Gourde and Mathieu Joseph.

“He never cheats you on effort,” Cooper has said repeatedly about Cirelli this season more times than you have fingers to count on.

That effort pays off defensively. Cirelli, 391 days into his NHL career, has quickly made a name for himself as a defensive center.

“He’s going to find his scoring touch, “ Alex Killorn said after Cirelli assisted on his shorthanded goal against the Blues on Saturday. “To be that good defensively this young in the league is something that’s really rare.”

His scoring touch is starting to come. Cirelli scored the winner in Monday’s comeback win against the Bruins, ripping a one-timer over Tuukka Rask’s glove into the top right corner of the net. That’s not an easy goal to score, and it definitely was a timely one.

The coaches have worked with Cirelli on offensive confidence. The focus of the most recent video work has centered on developing Cirelli’s offensive game.

“It seemed like he was content with puck possession,” Lalonde said. “He was content with chances. Now it’s another level: finishing, making plays.”

Lalonde wants Cirelli to have more poise with the puck and work on handling the puck in tight places. The rookie has made strides in that respect.

That’s the thing. Though Cirelli played 18 regular-season games and 17 playoff games last year, he’s still a rookie. The NHL says a season doesn’t count at fewer than 20 regular-season games. He’s young in age (21) and in terms of seasons played, but his play belies his inexperience.

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Having those 35 games made a big difference in Cirelli’s development. He went into the offseason knowing what it was like to be in the NHL. He knew he could be a regular; it wasn’t an abstract possibility.

“It was great to get that taste,” Cirelli said, “just knowing what to expect and everyday life, coming to the rink, practices, obviously the games and the intensity of games, seeing how good everybody is up here.”

Lalonde is also new to the NHL. Having coached in college, the junior USHL, and the minor-league ECHL and AHL since 2003, he joined the Lightning in the offseason after coaching the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa the past two seasons. He has seen the effect of an NHL taste on players from that side.

Cirelli was not the kind of player scouts drooled over as a teenager. He went undrafted in juniors and walked on to the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario League. That’s when he started to garner attention. In the 2015 Memorial Cup tournament, Cirelli scored in overtime in the final to give Oshawa the Canadian Hockey League championship. A month later, the Lightning drafted him in the third round.

Cirelli played most of the next two seasons in juniors, signing with the Lightning in 2016, then played most of 2017-18 with AHL Syracuse. He was called up on March 1, 2018, and made his NHL debut that night against the Stars, getting a goal and an assist in a win.

“I think there was probably a little awe in him,” Lalonde said of Cirelli’s first NHL appearance. “Now, he has confidence. Now, he wants to do more with his game.”

As for Cooper comparing Cirelli to Bergeron, the Bruins star had a different developmental path. Bergeron, 33, drew attention from scouts at a young age. He was tagged for greatness when he started in the NHL as an 18 year old. He has become a true top-line center offensively — 31 goals and 44 assists this year entering Wednesday — without losing his defensive prowess.

“Cirelli has quite a ways to go,” Cooper said, “but he starts rounding out the offensive side of his game and the two names will be synonymous at some point.”

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at Follow @dianacnearhos.