As the Tampa Bay Lightning head into the 2023-24 season, has numerous questions that need to be answered. These questions range from how the defensive depth will perform to whether or not Andrei Vasilevskiy bounces back from a lackluster postseason performance. One of the more interesting questions is how much will their non-superstar forwards produce offensively.
We know that Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos are expected to rack up excellent offensive numbers (assuming injuries aren’t a factor), but one of the more pressing questions for the team will be how well their depth forwards perform this season. Brandon Hagel proved himself to be a solid complementary player for the top six, but other than him, the Lightning seem to lack high-level producers.
Tampa Bay Lightning: X-Factor
The Tampa Bay Lightning have seen longtime fan favorites Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn depart in free agency the past two offseasons, which of course has crippled their offensive depth. The team doesn’t lack star power, but it could use more depth scoring.
There are a few concerns about the big guys (Kucherov, Point, and Stamkos), but many of the players behind them are not as reliable. Other than Brandon Hagel, one of the guys who can help alleviate these concerns is veteran center Anthony Cirelli.
Look, Cirelli has never been an offense-first player in the NHL. That’s not what makes him great. He’s one of the best penalty-killers on Tampa Bay. Since his NHL debut in March of 2018, he’s by far and away the leader on the squad in shorthanded goals at 11. The next closest are Cedric Paquette and Yanni Gourde at three each, though Nick Paul, Brandon Hagel, and Steven Stamkos all have two.
Though his offensive production while shorthanded is very good, relatively speaking, his overall offensive production has never been outstanding. That’s not a surprise given he’s not gifted with offensive skills, but there is more pressure on him to put up better numbers. His career highs in points (44) and points-per-game (0.647/53 point 82 game pace) were in 2019-20. Last Year, he was at 29 points in 58 games and 0.5 points per game.
Given how barren the Lightning are on offense outside of the top 6, they’ll need players like Cirelli to step up. What happens on nights when Kucherov/Point/Stamkos aren’t cooking?
Players like Anthony Cirelli, Nick Paul, Brandon Hagel, Conor Sheary, and even Tanner Jeannot need to step up their games. Cirelli didn’t have his best year offensively last year, Nick Paul went ice cold in March and April, Hagel (to his credit) had a great season last year, Sheary is unproven in Tampa Bay, and Jeannot saw a huge step back in production compared to his rookie season a couple of years ago.
I’m not saying that Cirelli needs to all of a sudden become a 40-goal/80-point player; that’s likely never happening. But if he can turn into a player who can give Jon Cooper around 25 goals and 60 points, that will go a long way toward answering Tampa Bay’s depth-scoring questions.
Given how Anthony Cirelli is beginning an 8-year, $6.25M AAV contract this season, it’s fair to say that he needs to step up his production on offense. He’s excellent in his own end, but consistent scoring needs to be fair when you’re making that much money, especially as a center seeing Top 6 minutes.
Playing with the likes of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov will help his production, but Cirelli should be driving more play in the offensive zone. He also needs to improve upon his finishing, as a 16-goal pace will likely not cut it. If one of the big three goes down for an extended period, that will put a lot more pressure on him to step up his offensive games.
If Anthony Cirelli can have his best offensive season as an NHLer, that will go a long way in answering the questions surrounding Tampa Bay’s depth and will help in their quest to cement themselves as an NHL dynasty. If not, there’s more pressure on Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos to produce like the future Hall of Famers that they are. Cirelli is one of the biggest X-factors for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season.