TAMPA — Derek Lalonde wishes his kids had more perspective when it comes to picking their Lightning favorites.
Sure, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point are the safe bets. But what about some of the up-and-coming superstars?
Enter Anthony Cirelli.
“I keep telling my kids, they need to watch out for him,” said Lalonde, a Lightning assistant coach, chuckling.
Lalonde said Cirelli is the type of player every coach hopes for. One who does whatever they’re asked. One that has that second and third level of competing. An all-the-time player.
“He does drive us,” Lalonde said. “He draws us into the fight. He’s non-stop compete.”
And that mentality starts with analyzing the little things. The things that Cirelli thinks can turn his level of play from a good to great. He sat down with Lalonde before Saturday’s game against Anaheim to go over video clips from recent games.
“Alright, it’s deep-dive day,” Lalonde told him, sitting down in the stall next to him, still wearing his own skates. “Time to buckle in for the next 10, 15 minutes.”
They go over video every few games because that’s what Cirelli likes. He’s comfortable seeing things right after they happen so things can be adjusted and not linger.
“It takes some time, but he processes things well,” Lalonde said. “He sees it, processes it, and you can see it translate.”
Even during games, Cirelli will turn to Lalonde or assistant coach Jeff Halpern — who also worked with Cirelli this summer — and ask to see an iPad to go over a play.
“Just to see the visual always helps more,” Cirelli said.
The forward’s game escalated around the halfway point last season and is still on the rise.
He tied his career long streak of four straight games with a goal of four goals in four games through Saturday’s win over Anaheim.
And despite not notching a goal Monday against the Sabres, he tallied an assist, which moved his point-streak to five games.
On Saturday, Cirelli stood inside the goal crease looking at Kucherov, who pounded out a shot from the right side of the ice. Anaheim’s John Gibson knelt between the posts to block the shot. But the goalie couldn’t catch his rebound before Cirelli laid out on the ice and started whacking at the puck.
The second whack against Cirelli’s stick was enough to move the puck past the red line.
Goal, Tampa Bay.
“He’s kind of found his scoring touch,” linemate Alex Killorn said. “And you see now all of his goals are him just pounding away at the net.”
Cirelli’s presence on special teams — the power play and penalty kill — and overall ice time has played a crucial role in Tampa Bay’s recent success. Both units have improved since the Global Series in Sweden and are among the best in the league in November.
Cirelli’s offensive confidence may be the biggest difference this year. Lalonde notes he has a little more poise with the puck. He may also have added something else in his third NHL season: the trust of his coaches.
“I think confidence is getting put in really important situations,” Lalonde said. “That trust where’s he’s playing the last minute of games. ... We’re putting him out when we’re down, we’re putting him out to protect a lead. He sees that trust from the coach, and I think that builds that confidence, also.”
Cirelli has established himself as a strong defensive forward. Coach Jon Cooper believes he can get to the level of Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, arguably the NHL’s best two-way skilled forward.
In 20 games, he’s racked up five goals and 10 assists. And the work is translating into something more. His offensive impact may be overlooked because he is more often used in defensive situations.
“He’s showing a lot of leadership out there in how he plays, how he works hard every day, and he puts the puck in the back of the net as well,” teammate Mathieu Joseph said.
No, Cirelli isn’t a veteran-leader, but his time is coming. His voice will be heard loud and clear in the Tampa Bay dressing room.
“If you’re going to play right and that way all of the time,” Lalonde said, “we want guys looking up to you and I think that’s where Tony’s heading.”