TAMPA, Fla. — The Lightning have spent the better part of the offseason and preseason preparing for life – at least in the short term – without center Ryan Callahan.
Now it seems they’re starting to prepare for life without Nikita Kucherov as well.
As the deadline for Kucherov to end his contract holdout in time for the start of the regular season drew closer, the Lighting offered a glimpse of what a lineup without him might look like on Saturday night.
It didn’t look bad either. In fact, during Tampa Bay’s final preseason game, it looked pretty good.
With top prospect Brayden Point stepping into Kucherov’s spot on the second line alongside Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn, Tampa Bay posted a 5-3 victory over Nashville in which Point was a major contributor.
In addition to setting up the Lightning’s first goal midway through the second period, Point scored Tampa Bay’s second goal of the night and his third of the preseason later that same period.
The goal gave Point the preseason team lead in that department and also allowed him to finish the preseason tied with three others for the team lead in points with four.
More importantly, it appeared to secure him a place on Tampa Bay’s opening night roster, which may have a hole where Kucherov is supposed to be if Kucherov doesn’t agreed to a new contract before then.
“He played well,’’ Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of Point. “He’s going to get a chance I think, what with some of the injuries and questions we have up front. He definitely deserves to be here.’’
Some, including Lightning coach Jon Cooper, had that very same thought this time last year. Back then, though, there just wasn’t any room on th roster for him. Now there is.
Callahan is going to miss at least the first month of the season while he recovers from offseason hip surgery and while many are saying a contract is imminent, there’s no way of knowing what Kucherov’s plans are.
An unrestricted free agent coming off a 30-goal season, Kucherov has several options to consider, including signing the one-year $735,000 qualifying offer the Lightning submitted over the summer.
He also has the option of signing either a two- or three-year bridge deal or the more lucrative five- or six-year contract that allows the Lightning to buy up his first two years of free agency.
Though it will almost certainly force them to move another contract off the books to fit Kucherov in under the salary cap, the latter is more than likely the objective the Lightning are seeking. The ramifications, though, may be one reason a deal has yet to be agreed upon. The Lightning may simply be waiting to make a trade before putting the finishing touches on a new contract for Kucherov.
It’s also possible the two sides remain far apart in negotiations. If that’s the case then Kucherov could extend his holdout well into the preseason. That’s where Point comes in.
As he has all through the preseason and especially on Saturday, Point appears ready to take on an expanded role. And not just as a top-line forward, but as a penalty killer and power play contributor as well.
“He still has to figure out the pro game a little bit, but I’m extremely happy with his camp,’’ said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who gave Point time on both special teams units on Saturday.
“And as we said, with two of or regulars up front not here, not available to play, that opens the door for some guy and he’s one of the guys it’s opening for. He’s done everything he could.’’
It would seem so. In addition to tying for the team lead in points and leading the team in goals, Point played to a plus-3 rating this preseason that was second best on the team.
“Yeah, I’m happy with how I played,’’ Point said Saturday in of his preseason performance. “They gave me a lot of opportunities to play with some good players and I’m thankful for that.’’
From the looks of things, more of those opportunities are on the way.