Prior to his team’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper went to Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and confirmed that they’d be playing with Brayden Point. He also told them that since it was Point’s first game after coming back from off-season hip surgery, he didn’t know how much ice time they were going to get. By the time Cooper got into the dressing room after the first period, Point had logged 8:08 in ice time and had a goal, an assist and five shot attempts.
It has been well documented that the Tampa Bay Lightning are blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to elite-level NHL talent. They have the reigning Hart Trophy winner and scoring champion as well as the current Vezina Trophy holder. They have a former Norris Trophy winner and a two-time Rocket Richard winner.
But as crazy as it sounds, there might not be a more important player on this team than Brayden Point, the undersized third-round pick who has put himself in the conversation surrounding the best players in the NHL. First, he’s an absolute puck magnet. Second, he has incredible speed. Third, he plays an all-world two-way game. Wonder why Stamkos is playing left wing this season after playing almost all of 2018-19 as a center? That’s because he’s the third-best center on this team now behind Point and Anthony Cirelli. The organization knows it and he knows it. And the best way to exploit Stamkos’ talent is to put him with the tandem of Point and Kucherov, which happens to be the deadliest line in the league.
“We just didn’t know how ‘Pointer’ was going to be out there not having played a game, but he was amazing,” Stamkos said. “If we can continue that and ‘Pointer’ can skate the way he did tonight, it pushes the play and it allows ‘Kuch’ to make plays, it allows me to try to get open and get space. And we did a good job of defending. (Point’s) speed alone, it’s game-changing speed. It’s up there with Connor McDavid.”
Prior to Point coming back into the lineup, the Lighting had allowed 36 shots a game and were playing so poorly defensively that Stamkos called his team out for its lack of commitment to an all-round game. It was no coincidence that after a crazy first period in which they gave up three goals, the Lightning managed to bear down and allow just 15 shots in the final two periods. Point was a big part of that. Point had two goals and an assist, Stamkos finished the game with a goal and four points and Kucherov had two goals and four points, but Cooper was just as impressed with the less heralded aspect of their game.
“To me, it was their play away from the puck,” Cooper said. “They weren’t giving up anything and if they did get stuck in their end, they really weren’t giving up a scoring chance. That’s what was really impressive for me.”
But what might say more about Point than anything else was that after the game it was jokingly suggested to him that he was a little rusty and he agreed with the assessment. But that’s Point, who is modest to a fault. Here’s a guy who signed a massively team-friendly deal for $6.75 million a year for three years. (Perhaps this is not the best time to point out that Point’s cap hit is $4 million less than Mitch Marner’s, and he’s making a whopping $10.75 million less in actual salary than Marner this season, and just happens to be tied with Marner in goals after playing one game.)
“There were a few plays where the timing wasn’t there and a couple of times the puck bounced off my stick,” Point said without cracking so much as a smile. “I sensed (the joke), but it was true. There were a few times, pucks were bobbling on me and a couple of times in the D-zone, I lost my guy. Stuff to clean up, that’s for sure.”
What makes it even more impressive is the reason Point wasn’t in the lineup had nothing to do with his contract dispute and everything to do with the fact that he had surgery in the summer to repair labrum tears in both of his hips. He wasn’t expected to be back in the lineup until late October.
“I feel good and I feel loose out there and I’m just trying to play free,” Point said. “Range of motion, mobility, there’s a few things (the surgery) helped for sure.”
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