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Lightning’s Anthony Cirelli has the reputation, and soon will have awards

John Romano | Anthony Cirelli was not among the finalists for the Frank J. Selke Trophy this week but, rest assured, he eventually will win the NHL honor for best defensive forward.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli just turned 23 but is already prominently mentioned among the top two-way centers in the NHL.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli just turned 23 but is already prominently mentioned among the top two-way centers in the NHL. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jul. 21, 2020

TAMPA — For a franchise that is relatively young — and used to be unstable — the Lightning have a fairly impressive history of goal-scoring forwards.

You know Marty St. Louis. He won an MVP award and is in the Hall of Fame. And you know Dave Andreychuk, who set the career record for power play goals while in Tampa Bay. Nikita Kucherov has won an MVP award, Brad Richards won a Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP, and Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier both won Maurice Richard trophies as the league’s top goal scorer.

All were stars, and all were winners. And yet, in their first quarter-century of hockey, the Lightning never had one of the league’s top defensive forwards.

Until Anthony Cirelli came along.

When the NHL announced the three finalists Monday for the Frank J. Selke Trophy for defensive prowess, Cirelli was not on the list. That’s a little disappointing, but not really surprising. Cirelli just turned 23 last week and the Selke is not an up-and-comer type of award.

Related: Lightning’s Victor Hedman selected as finalist for Norris Trophy

Because defensive stats are more nuanced than scoring, a player typically needs to build his reputation over several seasons before contending for the Selke. Ryan O’Reilly had picked up Selke votes for eight consecutive seasons before finally winning in St. Louis last year.

And make no mistake, Cirelli eventually will win.

As predictions go, that’s not very provocative. Cirelli is that good, and his reputation is spreading that fast. In a story about four-time Selke winner Patrice Bergeron being named a finalist again, the Boston Globe wrote that the 34-year-old Bruins captain was chosen ahead of “young bucks such as Anthony Cirelli of Tampa Bay, who by some advanced metrics was the most effective defensive forward in the league.”

Odds are, Cirelli will be in the top five when voting results are announced next month, which would make him only the second Lightning player ever to place that high. (St. Louis was fourth in 2004.)

“Right now I’m just more focused on our own team, just trying to stick to my game,” Cirelli said the day before the finalists were announced. “There’s a lot of great players in this league that are good on that ‘D' side and have that full 200-foot game. Just being mentioned in that conversation is a huge honor.”

In Cirelli’s case, the statistics only tell part of the story. Yes, he’s been at plus-25 or above the past two seasons, joining teammate Brayden Point as the only two players in the NHL. And his ratio of takeaways to giveaways has been stellar.

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But the bigger issue is the way Cirelli plays. He’s constantly pushing and annoying. He never takes a break on the ice which means opponents are always uncomfortable when he’s around. He’s been a fixture on the penalty kill the past two seasons, which is noteworthy considering his age and Tampa Bay’s phenomenal regular-season success.

And on a team that sometimes gets too enamored with its own ability to score goals, Cirelli can always be counted on to put as much emphasis on defense as offense. It’s part of who he is, a kid who had to work harder than everyone around him to get noticed in the NHL.

Naturally, there is room for growth. Cirelli is nowhere near Bergeron or O’Reilly or Sean Couturier in faceoff percentage, which is probably among the reasons why they all finished ahead of him as Selke finalists this season.

And, even though the Selke is theoretically a defensive award, every winner in the past two decades has scored more than 20 goals. Cirelli certainly has that potential, but his offensive game is still more hustle than skill.

What makes his ascension seem so certain is the work Cirelli puts in, and the blue-collar attitude he carries wherever he goes. He’s never going to lead the league in scoring, but he will also never grow complacent.

And those are qualities the Selke Trophy is built on.

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“It can be a reputation award but it’s also a consistency award. You have to consistently play at that high level to be thrown in the conversation first,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “You look at the guys who have won the award, and that’s what’s happened. Guys that are trying to make names for themselves, at times, have to wait for those other other guys to get a little bit older.

“At this young age … if he keeps playing the way he is he will be in that conversation for years to come.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.