There’s the belief in the State of Hockey that getting a No. 1 center outside the draft is impossible. To be fair, there is a good bit of evidence to support that thinking. Mainly, the Minnesota Wild have existed 20 years, and they’ve never done it.
This is debunked as soon as you start looking in Minnesota’s own division. The Dallas Stars traded for Tyler Seguin back in 2013. All Seguin has done since is score goals, averaging 34 every 82 games, while Dallas is a game away from the Western Conference Finals.
You can also look at Ryan O’Reilly in St. Louis. O’Reilly transformed the Blues, giving them Selke Trophy-caliber defense and much needed scoring punch up the middle. The Blues rode that trade’s success all the way to a Stanley Cup, with O’Reilly winning MVP honors.
Yes, those teams were lucky. But they were more than lucky. They had the pieces to make a deal once Boston got sick of Seguin and O’Reilly got sick of Buffalo and were bold enough to do what it took to get them. To paraphrase Sean Connery in The Rock: Losers always whine about the difficulties of the trade market. Winners go home and acquire No. 1 centers.
And if you’re wondering what a winner would do this offseason, here’s the answer: Trade for Anthony Cirelli.
No. 1 Center In Waiting
Maybe you’ve never heard of Cirelli. Or you’ve just seen his name in passing as a trade option on Twitter or in an article. And if you looked up this up-and-comer, you might have been underwhelmed. Cirelli had a career-high of… 44 points this season. Yes, he was only 22 years old, but No. 1 centers usually make themselves known by then.
Cirelli’s still under the radar. He gets 18 minutes a night, but plays behind Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov’s line. While they put up point-per-game numbers, Cirelli handles the bulk of the defensive work, playing almost three minutes of short-handed time a night.
Yet Cirelli has made a gigantic impact in Tampa. According to Evolving Hockey’s metrics, he’s already one of the best players in the NHL. Cirelli has been worth 11 Standings Points Above Replacement over the past two years, 17th among all skaters and 10th among centers. We’re talking ahead of Sidney Crosby (10.8), Jack Eichel (10) and Sasha Barkov (9.2).
All this from a guy who has just 83 points in that time. How?
This is what happens when you’re the best two-way center in the game. Cirelli controls the rink at 5-on-5, owning 56.3% of the expected goals and allowing just 1.96 per hour. Both numbers rate as top-20 among forwards. He’s also a brilliant penalty killer, and his total defensive impact (Goals Above Replacement at even-strength + penalty kill) is seventh among forward in the last two seasons.
He’s far from just being a defensive ace, however. Cirelli is a positive force in driving offense and is very disciplined. He took just 22 minor penalties and drew 59 in the past two seasons, eight in the NHL. He’s an all-around threat at 23.
Room to Grow Offensively?
The biggest hang-up one might have in trading for Cirelli is a question of his offensive upside. It’s great to be an elite defender, but Minnesota has plenty of those. Even at center, Joel Eriksson Ek is Cirelli’s equal in his own zone. What Minnesota needs is a player who can take over games in all three zones. Can Cirelli score enough to be a true No. 1 center?
You can never be certain about a player’s development curve, but gambling on Cirelli blossoming offensively would be smart. First of all, Cirelli’s 44 point total was somewhat deflated by the shortened season. That’s 44 points in 68 games. Add another 14 games at that pace, and he’s up to 53 right there.
It should also be pointed out that Cirelli was buried behind Tampa’s dominant first power play unit. Cirelli notched 5 points in just 65 minutes on the man advantage. What happens if he gets double, maybe triple that time on a new team? Suddenly, we’re talking around 60 points.
Then there’s the issue of teammates. Sure, Tampa boasts as deep an offense as there is, but Cirelli is hardly playing with Point and Kucherov. Cirelli spent 62.4% of his 5-on-5 minutes with Alex Killorn, who is a very solid player, but hardly All-Star caliber. Same with his two other most common linemates Tyler Johnson (28.2%) and Ondrej Palat (27.5%). On a team like, say, Minnesota, he’d be skating alongside Kevin Fiala or Kirill Kaprizov. One has to think that would provide at least a small boost in scoring.
It’s not far-fetched to think that in the right situation, Cirelli could score 60-plus points a season. And if you can do that while providing elite defense in all situations, that’s a No. 1 center.
Tampa is in a Tough Spot
So if Cirelli is a No. 1 center, why would Tampa trade him?
No team under ordinary circumstances would trade an asset like that. But these aren’t ordinary times. Tampa was going to be in salary cap hell even before coronavirus destroyed league revenues. Now, with the cap stuck at $81.5 million, the screws are even tighter.
The Lightning have $5.3 million in cap space, with just 15 of 23 roster spots filled for next year. They have just three defensemen under contract, none of which play the right side. They have no roster flexibility, either. Of their 10 highest-paid players, seven of them have no-trade protections. The three that don’t are Kucherov, Point and Andrei Vasilevskiy, three players Tampa would never trade.
And those eight roster spots will be tough to fill. Not only does Cirelli need a new deal, star young defenseman Mikhail Sergachev is also a restricted free agent. Evolving Hockey projects them to make a combined $12.3 million on their next deals.
Put it this way: Let’s say that Tampa is able to get, say, Johnson to waive his no-trade clause and offload his $5 million cap hit. And let’s assume a best-case scenario where Tampa gets Cirelli and Sergachev for a combined $8 million.
Tampa would still have seven roster spots to fill, and only $2.3 million to do so with.
Cap casualties aren’t unprecedented among perennially good teams like Tampa. Look at the talent exodus that Chicago saw in the early-to-mid-2010s. They lost stars like Artemi Panarin and Dustin Byfuglien, as well as Brandon Saad, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Ladd. The salary cap doesn’t play, and if the bill is indeed due in Tampa, Cirelli seems ripe for the taking.
How to Trade For Cirelli
The luck may well be there for the Wild. They need a No. 1 center, and there’s a No. 1 center who seems attainable. Now Minnesota has to be bold and do what it takes to acquire him.
Most would consider Matt Dumba or Jonas Brodin to be Minnesota’s best trade chips. Neither are much good to Tampa, even if Dumba fills their need for a right-shot defenseman. Tampa can’t afford to take on salary, which makes Dumba’s $6 million cap hit unaffordable.
Cheap assets — young players, prospects and draft picks — would be what gets a Cirelli deal done.
On the latest episode of the Michael Russo Hockey Show, Russo names Eriksson Ek as a player the Lightning have had interest in. He definitely makes sense for Tampa as a piece in a Cirelli deal. Eriksson Ek is a big step down from Cirelli offensively, but he provides 100% of Cirelli’s defense at a very affordable $1.5 million cap hit.
As for picks and prospects, Calen Addison would seem to fit the Lightning’s needs. Addison is a 20-year-old right-shot defenseman who could soon step in on a cheap entry-level contract. If Tampa wants to instead add draft capital, they could ask for Minnesota’s ninth overall pick in 2020. It’d be a tough pill to swallow, but the odds of the pick returning anyone of Cirelli’s caliber are long.
Any two of those three assets make sense as a starting point. But even if Minnesota has to include more, that’s still a deal the Wild should make, if possible. A No. 1 center is so transformative that almost any price is worth it. And if Guerin believes Cirelli is that franchise-changing player, then Minnesota has no choice but to aggressively pursue him.