Brayden Point emerging as Tampa Bay’s most valuable player

Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper called his young center Brayden Point into his office.

It was Game 1 of the 2018 Eastern Conference playoff semifinals in April, and Point was in the midst of being absolutely embarrassed by the Boston Bruins‘ top line. Cooper had entrusted his talented 22-year-old center with the team’s most important defensive test, which he had flunked to the tune of a minus-5 by the end of the game, the worst goal differential of his brief NHL career.

Maybe another coach throws a young player a life preserver, moving him into a different matchup. Maybe another player grows frustrated and despondent after an effort like that.

That wasn’t about to happen with Brayden Point.

“I had a stern heart to heart with him,” recalled Cooper this week, as the Lightning prepared to face the Nashville Predators. “I told him I’m not pulling him out of that matchup. That he has to play out of it. And you saw what happened after that. It was unreal.”

What happened: Point had a goal and three assists in Tampa Bay’s 4-2 Game 2 victory, evening a series they would win in six games.

“There’s a fire in him. You can be hard on Pointer. I think he wants that. He’s not satisfied,” said Cooper.

He was challenged. He accepted it. Such has been the case throughout his career, which continues to ascend to incredible heights this season, as Point establishes himself not only as one of the NHL’s top two-way forwards but as the Lightning’s most valuable player.

Like, for example, when he arrived at Lightning camp as a rookie in 2016 and his skating wasn’t quite where it needed to be.

Point was an average skater in Moose Jaw for coach Tim Hunter, and was an average skater when he first arrived in camp. Then he trained under Barb Underhill, an Olympic pairs skater who’s worked marvels with a number of NHL players as a coach.

“I said at the beginning of the year that she’s already co-MVP of the team. Brayden Point might be her best pupil,” said Brian Engblom, color analyst for the Lightning.

What did she help him improve?

“She worked a lot with me on getting my ankle to bend more. That way you’re on the better part of your blade, you can glide better, you’re always ready to push off. Keeping me off my heels was a big help,” Point told ESPN.

“If you’re able to help get somewhere quicker, on offense or on defense, it’s an advantage. When you look at players like [Connor] McDavid and [Nathan] MacKinnon, they really have that next-level speed. It helps them.”

Putting anyone in the same skating conversation as McDavid would seem blasphemous, and Engblom agrees that Point isn’t McDavid.

“Connor McDavid is in a class by himself, right? But this kid is the perfect skater. The perfect form. The lateral movement. His hands. His vision for the game,” he said.

But there are other facets of McDavid’s game that differentiate him from his peers. Like that killer instinct offensively. He’s ninth in the NHL in goals per game since 2016 (0.45) while Point is 34th (0.37). Even after a 32-goal campaign last season and 15 goals in Point’s first 23 games this season, Engblom believes he’s yet to embrace his talents as a goal-scorer.

“When he was a rookie, I remember watching him take some point-blank chances. And he’d shoot the puck, and the goalie would make the save, and he’d be like, ‘S—, it didn’t go in. It didn’t go in.’ He had to get used to the NHL goaltending,” Engblom said. “And to this day, he’s still a pass-first guy. I’ve asked him before if he thinks he’s a goal-scoring guy. He’d say no. And I think if he was, he’d score 40.”

But within context, Point’s offensive output is just fine.

“He scored 32 goals last year. That’s big, if you’re a matchup guy,” said Engblom.

Which Point is. The quality of the competition he faces is tops among Lightning forwards. He’s quietly moved himself into that rarefied echelon of players who can bring it offensively and defensively: the same breath as Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews and Aleksander Barkov. And like those players, he’s leading by example.

“He doesn’t cheat the game. He’ll take the extra step to get on top of you instead of trying to lift your stick. Whoever raised him, raised him well,” said Cooper. “You can make the case that he’s the engine that kickstarts our team. And it usually goes unnoticed, because he’s matched up against the other team’s best players. He’s always put in a position to shut down the other team’s top scorer, and then he ends up outscoring them, which is a hard thing to do.”

Also hard: earning the postseason accolades that Point could be in line for — the Selke Trophy, the Hart — when he’s the last person that would ever put himself in the conversation for such things. It’s just not who he is.

“I like to keep to myself. Maybe just how I am. I don’t really love to talk about myself, I guess,” said Point.

“He’s a pretty relaxed guy. Down to earth. Typical Western Canadian. Just goes with the flow, doesn’t worry about stuff too much,” said linemate Tyler Johnson. “If he’s not playing hockey, he’s playing video games. Or sleeping. He sleeps. A lot.”

Press his teammates on what Point does away from the rink, and that’s the sum of it. He’s dropped Fortnite for Call of Duty. And he’s an accomplished napper.

How often does this man nap?

Point laughed. “I don’t keep track of them. I don’t know if I take a crazy amount of them. We play a lot of games. We travel a lot. So any time I can get a nap in, I get one,” he said.

Then we’ll leave it at that: Brayden Point sleeps during the NHL season. But with a dynamic offensive start — 28 points in his first 23 games — and a burgeoning reputation as one of the league’s best defensive forwards, the NHL better not sleep on Brayden Point.

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