To accurately retrace the lineage that has led to Brayden Point becoming the Tampa Bay Lightning’s best player – yeah, I said that – and one of the all-time great draft picks in NHL history, you have to understand how it was a perfect confluence of top-level scouting, draft-day manipulation and the incredible importance of both drafting and developing.
And you have to go back to the spring of 2012. The Moose Jaw Warriors were in the midst of a Western League playoff run that would see them advance to the Eastern Conference final and lose to the Edmonton Oil Kings, who would go on to win the league championship. The Lightning were picking 10th in the draft that year and thought Warriors defenseman Morgan Rielly, who had been limited to just 18 games that season with a knee injury, might fall to them. Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray lives in Regina, so he picked up then-Lightning GM Steve Yzerman at the Regina Airport and made the 45-minute drive west to Moose Jaw to see Rielly in action.
“As we’re getting ready to watch the game, I said, ‘Here’s Rielly and a couple of other guys to keep an eye on,’ ” Murray recalled. “But I also said, ‘Most likely the best player in the game is going to be this guy right here because every game I watch him he’s the best player,’ and that night he was the best player.”
That player was a barely-16-year-old undersized kid by the name of Brayden Point, who was playing for the Calgary Buffalos U-18 team and whom the Warriors had taken in the first round of the WHL bantam draft in 2011. Too young to play full-time in the league, Point was allowed to play five regular-season games for the Warriors and the playoffs, where he tied for the team lead in goals with seven and points with 10. Rielly never did fall that far, going fifth to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2012, but the time Yzerman invested in getting an early glimpse of Point would prove to be vital.
Two years later, in Point’s draft year, he was putting up a 91-point season with the Warriors, but he was not without his detractors. Players of Point’s stature were beginning to be recognized as potential contributors at the NHL level, but there were serious concerns about Point’s skating and whether or not it would hold him back. In the THN Draft Preview that year, Point was ranked 42nd among all prospects and his NHL Projection tag-line read, “Dynamic point producer.” Not bad, eh? “He’s a small player with a big heart,” one scout said. “He plays bigger than his size and he fights through traffic. You just wish he were bigger.”
And if things had unfolded just a little differently, Brayden Point might be skating for the Minnesota Wild these days. The Lightning went to the draft in Philadelphia that year hoping to get Point, but desperately needed to stock their organization at defense. That’s why they took Tony DeAngelo in the first round, the Dominic Masin with the 35th overall pick and Johnathan MacLeod at No. 57. All three were blueliners. The Lightning actually had two first-round picks that year, the 19th overall one they used on DeAngelo and the 28th pick, which they dealt to the New York Islanders for the picks they used to take Masin and MacLeod. Following so far?
But the Lightning were far from done dealing for the day. They wanted Point with their next pick and were getting nervous someone ahead of them would take him. So from a dozen picks before he was picking at No. 80, Yzerman called each team before its pick and tried to move up. Prior to the Wild picking at 79, Yzerman offered a seventh-round pick to swap selections. The Wild made the deal, allowing the Lightning to take Point 79th, with the Wild taking defenseman Louis Belpedio from the U.S. national development program with the next pick.
“When it came to Minnesota, I said, ‘Steve, this is the team we’ve been worried about the most, so we traded one spot with them,” Murray said. “They had two guys on their list – Louis Belpedio, who just turned pro, and Brayden - and we just had Brayden. I talked to Brent Flahr, their assistant GM at the time and he said, ‘You have to tell me who you wanted.’ And I said, ‘We’re taking Point.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I kind of thought. We had Point and Belpedio and we like them both.’ And I said, ‘We like them both, too, but we really want Point.’ ”
Now we get to the developing part, something the Lightning did to perfection with Point. When Lightning coach Jon Cooper first saw Point in the 2014 development camp, he saw the same flaw most other people did with Point. “My first impression of Brayden Point was that he struggled to skate,” Cooper said. “He had all the attributes. He had the hockey sense, the competitiveness, he had all the hockey player traits you need, except shockingly enough, he didn’t have the speed he has now. All he did was improve his skating. He’s gone from an OK, decent skater to an exceptional skater.”
As soon as the Lightning took him, they turned him over to Stacy Roest, who does much of the development work with the team. Roest put Point onto Barbara Underhill, a former World Champion pairs skater who has helped a number of NHLers improve their stride. Among those working with Point was Jamie Heffernan, a golf pro by profession who is also a consultant with the Lightning. He was one of the first in hockey to use the Zenolink 3D motion capture technology system as a tool to analyze skating. The result is the current version of Brayden Point, an elite skater who can play both ends of the ice and could very well end up winning the Conn Smythe Trophy this season.
Of course, none of this happens without Point himself realizing his shortcomings and working on them. If he doesn’t buy what the Lightning are selling, he’s probably a lot lower on the depth chart, perhaps even one of those ‘tweeners’, guys who constantly shuttle between the NHL and the minor pros before eventually chasing the money in Europe. He probably doesn’t make two World Junior teams and he doesn’t basically jump straight to the NHL at the age of 20.
“Every time I’ve ever seen him play, he’s been arguably the best player in any game I’ve ever seen at any level,” Murray said. “A lot of guys get drafted and then spend the next two years in junior just running up the points, then they work hard once they find out they can’t make it immediately to the NHL and they have to go to the American League. Not Brayden. He worked hard with our people from the time he was drafted.”