TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t built themselves into Stanley Cup contenders by rushing their top prospects to the NHL too soon. Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn can all attest to that.
Each of those three core contributors was forced to spend a significant period of time polishing his game at the minor pro level before he was allowed to test it out at the big-league level.
The same cannot be said of Brayden Point.
The Lightning’s third-round pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft was promoted this year after playing in just nine games with the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse last year.
There’s nothing to suggest, though, that Point was brought up too soon. The Lightning in fact will argue the timing was perfect. After all, they might not have beaten the Devils on Saturday without him.
With his parents and younger brother watching from the stands, Point recorded his first NHL point by setting up Valtteri Filppula’s game winner in the Lightning’s 3-2 victory at Amalie Arena.
“I don’t know if I really set that one up because it was a good shot by (Jason Garrison) and a great tip by Val that got us the goal,’’ Point said. “It’s pretty cool, though, to get that first point.’’
Point’s humility aside, it was an assist well earned. Grabbing a loose puck off a faceoff, Point carried the puck behind the Devils’ net, fought off a check from Andy Greene and dished a pass back out to Garrison at the right point.
And he did all that while playing out of position on the right wing, which according to Lightning coach Jon Cooper is further proof of how much Point deserves to be in the NHL despite playing most of last season back at the junior level.
“I know how much (playing in the minors) helped guys like Johnson and (Ondrej) Palat and Killorn to develop, but with Brayden a little bit of a door opened up and a spot became available,’’ Cooper said.
“And the other thing is, the game seems to be getting faster every year and so you have to be able to keep up. And he can do all that. He’s got the speed and the quickness to play here.’’
Point wasn’t quite sure he had all the speed and quickness that was required of him so he spent a good part of his offseason this past summer working on his skating, hoping to add a step.
The extra work seems to have paid off. As his play on the game winner suggests, Point is having no trouble keeping up with or even setting the pace of play here at the NHL level.
“Yeah, I think that extra work is helping me a lot,’’ he said. “I mean, it’s a big jump from junior because the guys aren’t just faster here, they work harder and they’re always in good position. They can get that stick out there on you pretty good, so there’s quite an adjustment to make and I’m still trying to get used to it obviously. But so far things are working out pretty well I think.’’
Cooper thinks so, too, and it shows. He’s played Point on the third line each of the first two games and given him an average of more than 15 minutes of ice time in each game, which is critical.
Though he’s proven himself worthy of a roster spot, Point’s job now is to continue to prove himself worthy of regular ice time. On a team as deep as the Lightning, who will soon have Ryan Callahan back, that’s the only way Point can avoid having to spend a significant period of time honing his game down in Syracuse. Cooper made that point clear to the rookie the on the eve of the regular season opener earlier this week.
“It’s an exciting time for Brayden, but we’re not handing out roster spots for free here,’’ Cooper said of the message he delivered to Poitn during a one-on-one meeting the day before the season opener.
“The guys that are here earn their spots and he definitely earned his this year. But the [question is], what are you going to do now. How are you going to stay? Because there’s going to be some bumps in the road. I mean just look at Kucherov [during his nine-goal rookie year].
“It takes time, because he’s still got to learn the pro game and it’s not easy. But he’s done everything we’ve asked of him, his work ethic is impeccable and he’s got good hockey sense, so we’re going to give him a chance.’’