The coach’s office in Amalie Arena is just to the left of the tunnel that leads from the ice to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s dressing room. The guy who occupies it is Jon Cooper, who this year became the NHL’s longest-tenured active coach with the same team. When asked how many times he’s pulled a player into his office for a closed-door meeting between periods over his five-plus seasons, Cooper contemplates the question for a moment. Almost never, that’s how often. But last spring he did. You know what they say about desperate times, and things were looking dire for Cooper and the Lightning.
It was the first intermission of Game 2 in Tampa’s second-round playoff series against Boston last April. The Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak (you might have heard these guys are pretty good) were making the Lightning’s unit of Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat look the way they make a lot of opposing lines look – like a bunch of donkeys. Point jumped out to the early clubhouse lead by going minus-5 in Game 1, and on the fifth goal he looked as lost as Dorothy just after the hurricane blew through Kansas. Then with 1:30 remaining in the first period of Game 2, Point jumped onto the ice to replace Steven Stamkos just in time to watch Charlie McAvoy finish a three-way passing play that ended in his first career playoff goal. “He ate a s—ty minus,” is the way Cooper describes it. Four periods into the series, Point was minus-6 and he was wearing it like a scarlet letter, taking no solace in the fact that plus-minus has been exposed as a faulty stat by the analytics world.
So Cooper pulled Point into his office. He could see the frustration on Point’s face, but even more, he could see and sense doubt. This was Point’s first foray into big-boy playoff hockey, and things weren’t going well at all. Perhaps all those people who had been telling him since he was a kid that he was too small were finally going to be proven right. “I bring him into the office and I tell him, ‘I’m not pulling you off this matchup. You can do it. You’ve had some s—ty luck. But you know you can do this,’ ” Cooper said. “We talked it out, and he went out there and look at what happened.”
Point responded with three points in the second and third periods, and he wasn’t on the ice for another even-strength goal against for the rest of the series as the Lightning swept the next four games.
Those who know Point best weren’t surprised by the turn of events. Place a challenge in front of him and he will take it, then beat it, then exceed it. It’s been that way since his minor hockey days when he won the Esso Medal of Achievement as the most dedicated player for the Blackfoot Chiefs peewee team. When the Lightning told him to improve his skating and had him work with former Olympic skater turned skating coach Barbara Underhill – the woman who transformed John Tavares from plodding to powerful – Point took the hint and now goes stride for stride against the best players in the league. “I put him right up there with (Connor) McDavid in terms of how he creates speed on his crossovers,” Stamkos said. “His first three strides are explosive, and that gives him an edge on everyone. Then the skill set and the smarts take over. I think he’s one of the best centermen in the league.”
Holy smokes, that’s heady praise from a player who could say the same thing about himself. But Point has earned it in this, his third season in the NHL. While the Lightning were spending December and January running away with the league and Nikita Kucherov was snowbanking a pretty good case for both the scoring championship and Hart Trophy, Point was quietly becoming one of the world’s most effective two-way centers. On pace for 50 goals and 110 points through late January, he was making his own case for some individual hardware. Point was within striking distance of the Rocket Richard Trophy and will probably get some love for the Selke. And even though he’ll likely take a back seat to Kucherov, he’s been mentioned as a legitimate candidate for the Hart. About the only person he hasn’t impressed is himself. “I don’t think I’m the MVP of this team,” Point said. “I’m not even in the top five.”
I put him right up there with McDavid in terms of how he creates speed on his crossovers.
– Steven Stamkos
Centering a unit with Johnson on the left side and Kucherov on the right, on what might be the smallest dominant line to come along in decades, Point accepts the responsibility of going up against top lines and not only keeping them off the scoresheet but contributing offensively himself. He has done a fair bit of damage on the power play, and having a shooting percentage of 23.6 hasn’t hurt his cause, but Point is contributing in all situations. Of his 22 assists at even strength, 18 were primary. Point’s line will never win a tug-of-war against any other in the NHL, but try getting the puck away from any of them. We often associate lines that can cycle the puck well with behemoths, but Point’s trio manages to keep control of the disc and cycle it around the offensive zone with speed and skill. “ ‘Kuch’ is the most talented player on that line by a lot, but he might be the most talented player in the league,” Cooper said. “But somebody drives ‘Kuch’ to play the game faster, and Point does that. And ‘Johnny’ can keep up. But Point, he drives lines, he’s the guy who drives it.’
Wow, more heady praise for a guy who honestly thinks he doesn’t deserve it. Humility and a quiet sense of purpose go hand in hockey glove with Point. He’s in a long-distance relationship with the same girl he started dating in his first year with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors. His idea of a perfect night is to go back to his Tampa condo and spend time with his golden doodle, Hank, named in deference to Hank Williams, and play long-distance video games with his brothers.
Point grew up in Blackfoot, a hamlet in the east end of Calgary that’s predominantly working class. His father, Grant, graduated from high school and became a paver, and he now manages at Bow River Paving, where Brayden’s older brother Riley works as an estimator and his mother, Janice, is employed as a secretary. No silver spoons to be found anywhere, but lots of spade shovels. “We’re about as middle-class as you can get,” Grant said. “And Blackfoot is a real blue-collar community. We have 10 tow-truck drivers for every doctor.”
Brayden and his father golfed a dozen times with a couple from their golf club last summer, and when they asked what he did, Brayden told them he played hockey for a living. It wasn’t until late in the summer that the couple realized they were golfing with a 30-goal scorer in the best league in the world. “Someone must have said something to her because she finally came up to Brayden and said, ‘You said you played hockey, but you never told me you played in the NHL,’ ” Grant said. “He’s not a Chatty Cathy, that’s for sure. You could be with Brayden for days and never know he played in the NHL. He would never tell you that. It’s all inward with him. You watch him score a goal sometimes and he barely celebrates.”
Must have something do with him being so used to doing it. At every level he has played, Point has been an elite producer. He thinks the game at a superior level and has top-shelf hand and stick skills. And now that he has turned his skating from a weakness into a strength, he has an attractive and varied skill set. When the Lightning missed the playoffs after Point’s rookie season in 2016-17, Cooper took the job of coaching Canada’s team at the World Championship. He decided to put Point between Mitch Marner and Travis Konecny, thinking they might make a good fourth unit that would spend much of its time watching and learning from the bench. Marner finished second in scoring for Canada with 12 points, Konecny had eight assists and Point contributed four goals to a team that lost the gold-medal game in a shootout. “They were rock stars,” Cooper said. “They were our best line. The only line I never split up the whole tournament. Point and Marner were unreal together.”
When Cooper saw Point at his first training camp, he wasn’t as underwhelmed as he was realistic. He saw a good little player who might have a chance to be a guy who went up and down from the minors to the NHL to fill in for injuries. At the very least, he could have been a good guy for Traktor Chelyabinsk, the KHL team that drafted him in the fifth round when he was a 17-year-old in 2013. “You’re like, ‘Yeah, he’s a good little player,’ but they’re a dime a dozen,” Cooper said. “I’m a true believer that if you’re an undersized player, you’d better be good at something, you’d better be the fastest skater, you’d better have the best shot, whatever it is. He was little and he was good at all, great at nothing. Now he’s becoming great at all and good at nothing. That’s what he’s doing.”
But there’s also a little more to this. Has anyone taken notice that Tampa Bay has had more success than any other team when it comes drafting and developing small players? According to the NHL rosters at the start of the season, the Lightning are the third-shortest team, averaging six feet and 0.7 inches. Their average weight is 196.9 pounds, and there are only eight teams lighter than that. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that 5-foot-9 Pat Verbeek, the Little Ball of Hate™ who scored 500 goals and 1,000 points in the NHL, is their assistant GM, or that 5-foot-10 Stacy Roest, who scored just 28 goals, is their director of player development. But Tampa Bay is having all kinds of good fortune taking advantage of the direction the league is going. At 5-foot-11 and 178 pounds, Kucherov is the giant of the group, and he’s joined by Point (listed generously at 5-foot-10, 166), Yanni Gourde (5-foot-9, 172) and Johnson (5-foot-8, 183). Gourde and Johnson were free agents, while Kucherov is a second-round pick and Point a third-rounder. And the Lightning might have another one in Alex Barre-Boulet, a 5-foot-9, 167-pounder who was signed as a free agent after he led the QMJHL in scoring as an overage player last season and is among the AHL’s leading rookie scorers this season. It really isn’t that complicated. The numbers are there for everyone to see.
After drafting defenseman Johnathan MacLeod 57th overall with their third pick in 2017, the Lightning tried to swing a deal to move up to take Point. The teams picking 58th through 78th turned them down until the Lightning traded a seventh-rounder to the Minnesota Wild to move up just one spot to select Point 79th. But it’s what they did with Point after they drafted him that has made most of the difference.
He was good at all, great at nothing. Now he’s becoming great at all and good at Nothing. That’s what he’s doing.
– Jon Cooper
Two days later, Point was in a Lightning development camp. They then put Underhill on his file, even dispatching her to Moose Jaw to work with him on his skating. What organization does that for a third-rounder? Part of it was a lack of leg strength, but Underhill discovered early that much of what was holding Point back in his skating was his ankle flexion, meaning his foot naturally gravitated to pointing up to his shin instead of staying straightly aligned. She conditioned Point to concentrate on getting up more on the ball of his foot, where he would be able to get so much more push and power in his stride. “I just worked on it and worked out with her and I’m better at it,” Point said. “I’m still not great, I’m not perfect, but it’s something that helped me for sure. It’s exciting to see results, but still lots of work to do.”
There’s always a lot of work to do. Point could be better at winning faceoffs, but then again McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon will never be confused with Patrice Bergeron or Sidney Crosby at this point in their careers. And when a team like the Washington Capitals wins the Stanley Cup, there’s always the concern you’re not big enough or strong enough to compete in the playoffs when the game gets far more difficult. “Is this the part where I say you can’t hit what you can’t catch?” Cooper said.
Tampa Bay has been to the Eastern Conference final three of the past four years, including one trip to the Stanley Cup final in the season before Point arrived. And much is expected of this group. There isn’t a more dynamic team in the league, but that sometimes means you’re scoring your way out of jams when your weaknesses have been exposed. Point is part of the group that makes the Lightning so dangerous, and even though he’s being humble when he claims he’s not even among the team’s top five players, he knows he’s surrounded by players who take up a lot of oxygen. Stamkos is one of the greatest goal-scorers of his generation, Kucherov has established himself as one of the NHL’s most gifted offensive players, Victor Hedman is a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is a multiple Vezina winner in waiting. Kucherov and Stamkos were selected for the Atlantic Division team in the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, and Vasilevskiy was chosen as a replacement for Carey Price. At the very least, Point is having to take a spot in Tampa’s pecking order. But, to the surprise of no one, he’s perfectly fine doing so. “Those guys are great players, and they deserve all the credit they get,” said Point of his higher-profile teammates. “What they do in the games, it’s incredible. I’m just happy to be here, happy to be a part of it and chip in when I can.”