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Lightning, Brayden Point still apart as training camp continues

The changing restricted free agent market could force the Tampa Bay to depart from its usual contract dealings.

There’s still no sign of Brayden Point at Lightning training camp.

Julien BriseBois remains optimistic about signing the restricted free agent center, but the general manager didn’t give a time line when he expressed that optimism Thursday as camp opened. That might be because the Lightning and Point are still pretty far apart in their negotiations.

Tampa Bay has offered Point a three-year deal with a $5.7 million annual average value, the Tampa Bay Times confirmed. The offer was first reported by Pierre LeBrun of Canadian TV network TSN and the website the Athletic.

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That value is lower than the one that had been thrown around in the offseason, when speculation was in the $8 million range.

It also is smaller than the deal given to the biggest chip to fall off the frozen restricted free agent market so far.

Maple Leafs wing Mitch Marner agreed to a deal of six years at an average value of $10.893 million a year, the team announced late Friday. Now the question: What does that mean for the rest of the market, especially the Lightning and Point?

The Maple Leafs were willing to risk overpaying Marner to get a deal done on the second day of training camp. Last season they had restricted free agent center William Nylander hold out until the December deadline for eligibility to play the rest of the season.

The Lightning haven’t shown that willingness. Their three-year offer to Point fits with their usual modus operandi. Just about every contract a Lightning player has signed coming out of his entry-level deal has been a three-year bridge deal — a contract in which a player agrees to leave money on the table and bet on himself to earn big bucks in his next contract.

Nikita Kucherov signed a three-year bridge deal with an annual average value of $4.7 million in 2016 after holding out through training camp. At the time, that was better than the three-year, $3.3-million-average bridge deals given to Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat in 2014.

The market has again seen an uptick. And Point is in a different place than Kucherov was in 2016.

Three years ago, Kucherov was coming off back-to-back seasons of 65 and 66 points, and was two years away from being a healthy scratch in the playoffs. In his three seasons with the Lightining, Point, 23, has an All-Star Game appearance in 2018 and is coming off his first 40-goal season and a career-high 92 points.

It can be argued that because Point played with Kucherov last season, he benefited from the latter’s playmaking. But of all NHL players with at least 75 shots last season, Point had the second-highest shooting percentage, 21.5.

The league is getting younger, and young stars are demanding a greater share of the money rather than waiting for bigger contracts as veterans. The market is moving away from bridge contracts for star players.

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Defenseman Zach Werenski, another of the high-profile restricted free agents this year, signed a three-year, $5-million-average bridge deal with the Blue Jackets on Monday. But Werenski, 22, isn’t in the same stratosphere as Point.

On the other side, it would be a stretch for Point to match Marner’s contract value. The Lightning don’t have that kind of salary cap space. They have about $8.5 million, according to the salary website CapFriendly, and have little flexibility to free up more.

Tampa Bay also isn’t Toronto.

Marner has higher comparables on his team — Auston Matthews at $11.6 million a season and John Tavares at $11 million. Kucherov is the highest-paid Lightning player at $9.5 million; goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy will match that when his extension kicks in next season.

The Leafs don’t have another big contract coming up until defenseman Morgan Reilly in 2022. The Lightning have Erik Cernak, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and Mikhail Sergachev as restricted free agents coming off their entry-level contracts next summer. BriseBois needs to balance all that.

But the focus now is Point.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.

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