TAMPA — The Lightning has a wildly talented collection of players. There is the performance artistry of Nikita Kucherov. There is reigning Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman. There is future Hall of Famer Steven Stamkos.
And then there's the team's best player.
That would be 22-year-old Brayden Point, who is quietly at it again.
Tuesday night, in a loss to Anaheim, Point scored his team-leading 18th goal. He is on pace for 59 goals in this, just his third season in the NHL. The Lightning center is sixth in the league in scoring with 32 points, one back of linemate Kucherov.
Names like McDavid, MacKinnon and Matthews dominate the stage as hockey's young headliners, but Point deserves ink. Super-stardom awaits him, whether he wants it or not.
He wants it not.
"I don't know," Point said. "I just play. Don't think about anything else."
"That would be Brayden Point," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He's very unassuming. He plays in the limelight. But he doesn't linger there."
Meet the natural.
Meet the heartbeat.
There isn't one thing about Point's game that jumps out at you. Okay, maybe his speed. The kid is one of the best skaters in hockey, as he showed during the skills competition of last season's NHL All-Star Game in Tampa, right in the middle of his breakout sophomore season (34 goals, 34 assists). Point came in as the second-fastest skater, behind only the untouchable Connor McDavid.
But mostly Point just owns in-game moments wherever he goes.
"We have so many talented players on this team who excel in different areas," Cooper said. "Does Point have the hardest shot? Probably not. Is he the biggest guy on the team? No. Does he hit the hardest? No. But if you add it all up, there are rare players who can excel at every inch of the ice. He's one of them. Not 200 feet. Every inch. That's him."
Point is a north-south skater, but maybe the best one going, whether he's showing up at the right time, ahead of the puck, or matching up against the other team's best lines, or making the players around him better, including Kucherov and Tyler Johnson, who play on Point's line. They're a terror.
"He plays a simpler game," Lightning TV analyst Brian Engblom said. "Pointer goes open space to open space. He's a chess player that's moving two pieces ahead. He's extremely conscientious about which side of the puck he's on. He's got great hockey sense."
"You just play so much hockey growing up," Point said. "As much as it's random, there are patterns in any game. Playing with a guy like Kuch, I just try to find open ice. I'm just trying to work hard. Sometimes the puck just bounces your way. It just seems to be going in for me."
There's more to it than that.
There's the head and heart.
"He's there before the play," Hockey Hall of Famer and Lightning radio analyst Phil Esposito said. "You watch him. He goes in the corner, and seven times out of 10, he's coming out with it. He never gives up."
For Point, this season might have begun in his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He was matched against league MVP Taylor Hall in the New Jersey series and more than held his own. But it was the Boston series that probably confirmed what Cooper, his staff and players suspected.
In Game 1 of Eastern Conference semifinal against Boston, Point and his line were blown up by the top line in the league, the Bruins' troika of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. Point finished with a plus-minus of minus-5, the worst goal differential of his brief career. It could have been a shattering moment.
"I had a stern heart to heart with him," Cooper said. "I told him I'm not pulling him out of that matchup. That he has to play out of it."
In Game 2, Point had a goal and added three assists. The Lightning won. It closed out Boston in five games.
"There's a fire in him," Cooper said. "It's okay if you're hard on Pointer. He's not satisfied."
And now true stardom has arrived. Point would hold up a crucifix if he thought it would ward it off.
"I just want to keep playing," he said.
"He's a role model for other players," Cooper said. "He may not think of it that way because he's so young. But young guys look at him and they say, 'I want to play like Brayden Point.' "
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or 813-731-8029.