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Thursday, Jul 20, 2017
Sports

Could a late-blooming prospect become Lightning's 'Captain Clutch'?

Rocco Cirelli hopes his son's improbable story could be a beacon of hope for other kids.

"Maybe they'll realize that it's never the end," he said.

Lightning prospect Anthony Cirelli, 19, thought his hockey career had ended before it had begun. Passed over twice in the junior Ontario Hockey League draft, the 6-foot center was unknown and unwanted a few years ago. The NHL? That seemed light years away, a pipe dream.

Yet here Anthony is now, one of five Lightning prospects competing in the junior Canadian Hockey League championship, the Memorial Cup, a round-robin tournament that opens today in Ontario. And again he is stealing the show. His team, the Erie Otters, dub him "Captain Clutch," and for good reason.

Two years after Anthony scored both goals in a Memorial Cup-clinching victory for Oshawa, his overtime winner Saturday lifted Erie to this year's final four. At Oshawa, he arrived as a walk-on. At Erie, he was the final piece, the big trade deadline acquisition this season. The Otters gave up a 2016 first-rounder and five other picks to snag him.

Not everyone is a Connor McDavid or Steven Stamkos. For every can't-miss NHL lottery pick, there are hidden gems like Anthony Cirelli.

"I thought my career wasn't going to have a start," he said. "I appreciate everything everyone has done for me to get me to this point. I'm just a late bloomer, I guess."

• • •

Anthony got overlooked during the OHL drafts in part due to his size. But it also had something to do with a lack of exposure.

Rocco Cirelli, who coached his son at a younger age, wanted him to play at the highest youth level outside of their Woodbridge, Ontario, home.

"He was content just playing with his friends," Rocco said.

By the time Anthony reached Triple A, his team struggled, missing the playoffs. There weren't any sniffs from scouts, nor any college scholarship offers. Anthony didn't watch his first OHL draft and checked his laptop during the second, never seeing his name.

"You could tell he was very somber and moping around the house the rest of the day," Rocco said.

Said Anthony: "Once the draft was over, I knew I had some work to do to continue my career."

• • •

Anthony worked with trainer Dan Noble that summer.

But he still needed a break. He got one when Oshawa scout Joe Washkurak got him a tryout.

"Doors had to open," Rocco said.

Then Anthony knocked them down. He had 36 points (13 goals) in 68 games in his first season with the Generals, 2014-15. But he saved the best for last, scoring both goals in the Memorial Cup title game, including the overtime winner.

"I wasn't expecting that," Anthony said. "Caught two breaks."

He caught the eye of Lightning area scout Rob Kitamura, who also ended up being the lead scout on defenseman Jake Dotchin, who played with the Lightning as a rookie this season. But Anthony was no longer a secret, ranked 67th in the Central Scouting ranking of North American skaters. "That was mind-boggling," Rocco said.

Anthony didn't attend the 2015 NHL draft in Sunrise. They celebrated at home in Ontario when he was picked in the third round by Tampa Bay. "It worked out for the best," Rocco said.

• • •

Anthony said that what has made this season's run so fun with Erie is that he's sharing it with other Lightning prospects. His roommate is forward Taylor Raddysh, a 2016 second-round pick who recently signed his entry-level contract. Raddysh's hat trick Saturday forced overtime and enabled Cirelli's heroics. Otters defenseman Erik Cernak was acquired by the Lightning from the Kings in the February Ben Bishop trade.

Lightning forward prospects Mathieu Joseph and Boko Imama play for Memorial Cup finalist Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior League.

"It's been a lot of fun," Anthony said. "A good journey."

He will likely open next season in AHL Syracuse, though he admits to being motivated by center Brayden Point's jump from juniors to the Lightning this season.

The Lightning brass has been impressed by Anthony. "He plays the game the right way," director of player development Stacey Roest said. "He does all the little things right."

It just took a little longer for him to get here.

"There are different paths for everyone," Rocco said.

His son is the perfect example.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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