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Cirelli hoping to build off strong rookie season for Lightning

'Very underrated' forward became integral part of team

by Aaron Vickers / NHL.com Correspondent

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- Anthony Cirelli can't point to a specific instance when he felt right at home in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But the forward, who played all 82 regular-season games and four Stanley Cup Playoff games as a rookie this season, certainly feels it now.

"I don't know if there's a moment. I just knew, obviously, from the prior season playing in that playoff run and that atmosphere," said Cirelli, who played 18 regular-season games and 17 playoff games with Tampa Bay in 2017-18. "I think from there on, I just knew that if I continued to work hard, I could play in this League. I just tried to come ready for camp.

"I just got a little bit more comfortable each and every day and just gradually started to make more plays here and there, comfortable with the puck and comfortable with making plays. … I just tried to take it one day at a time, one game at a time."

On a Lightning team that featured Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy, Cirelli didn't generate much talk.

Internally, his efforts were noticed. 

Video: CBJ@TBL, Gm1: Cirelli sweeps home rebound in front

"He's a very underrated player," said Lightning forward Mathieu Joseph, who played with Cirelli for Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Championship. "Sometimes, I've heard people say that maybe he's not as noticeable on the ice, but he does so many good things, so many great things well. He's good in every facet of the game.

"He's a guy who can take a hit to make a play, he can score a clutch goal, he can block a shot at the right time, win an important face-off, play against any player on the other team. He performs. He's a very underrated player. You don't know how good he is until you play with him."

It's just a matter of time before Cirelli gets his due, Joseph said.

"He's a quiet kind of guy in general and he does his thing," he said. "He leads by his play and by the way he shows up every game and every practice with how hard he battles. I'm sure he's going to get more and more attention as the years are coming.

"I think he's an underrated player because, with the season he had, he went under the radar."

Cirelli was fifth among NHL rookies in goals this season with 19 and sixth in points at 39, but his underlying stats are even more impressive.

Among Lightning players to play at least 15 games, Cirelli's 54.26 shot attempts percentage was second to Alex Killorn (54.83), and he had the second-fewest offensive zone starts at 40.76 percent. He was also third with 47 takeaways and had 15 giveaways, fourth fewest.

Video: BOS@TBL: Cirelli buries one-timer for late lead

"He's a really good player who is improving himself," Tampa Bay defenseman Erik Cernak said. "He's a really good young guy. He's working hard. He's an awesome guy. We are really happy we have a guy like him in Tampa. He's a really good player. He can make plays and he's good in the defensive zone.

"He's a player every team needs."

Though Cirelli has become a jack-of-all-trades type for Tampa Bay, it's not something he envisioned in September.

"Thinking back, no I wouldn't have thought that," Cirelli said. "I was just happy to come in and help the team any way I could … potting a couple goals or just being reliable, that 200-foot player, protect the D side. If I could pop in a few more goals, great. The teammates down there helped me a lot.

"It was my first full season. They helped me when they could, giving me tips here and there. The coaching staff did a great job of showing me video on what I could improve on and try and get better at. I thought it was a good season. Obviously, not the way we would've liked to end it (swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round), but excited to get into the summer and training again and back to next season.

"I want to get stronger, try to get a little bit faster and work on my skills on the ice. Doing all that, getting better in every aspect in my game and be ready for camp. … It stings the way things ended last year, but that motivates each of us to be better next year."

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