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All signs indicate Brayden Point ready to play for Lightning

Don’t be surprised if Point is in the lineup Thursday against Toronto.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) works the puck through the Detroit zone during the second period of a March 9 game vs. Detroit at Amalie Arena. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Oct. 8
Updated Oct. 8

BRANDON — Brayden Point found himself looking forward to practice Tuesday. He was finally on a line, fully participating.

Point practiced on the top line with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos and took his usual spot on the power play. That, coupled with the Lightning’s decision to assign Gemel Smith to the AHL, indicates Point is ready to play.

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He couched it with “if I’m playing” Thursday in Toronto, and coach Jon Cooper wasn’t available to ask. But Smith’s departure leaves the Lightning with 12 forwards, not including the injured Cedric Paquette, so it’s not much of a leap.

“Just to be part of the practice is exciting," Point said. “It’s another step and I’m excited.”

It says something when a player is excited to get in the drills. Point has been recovering from offseason hip surgery and was originally estimated to return in late October.

This was a long summer for Point, as he rehabbed the injury, then skated by himself. Even once he signed his contract and joined the team, he did most of his work after the main session.

Point watched the first three games either from the dressing room or the press box. He suggested that he can learn something from the different vantage point, hoping it helps when he gets back in the lineup.

“We’re adding a really good player back into our lineup,” assistant coach Todd Richards said. “He’s one of the players that really drives our team, with the energy out on the ice and the way he plays.”

During training camp, Ryan McDonagh compared Point returning to the lineup to a big midseason acquisition.

Leaving a roster spot open

The Lightning didn’t have to send Smith down to make space for Point. They only had 23 players on the roster as it was.

MORE LIGHTNING: Four things we learned in three games

By assigning Smith to the AHL, the Lightning is now carrying 22 players, one less than the maximum allowed.

On one hand, that allows the team to save some salary cap space, by not paying Smith’s NHL salary. It does, however, leave the Lightning open to injuries.

Right now, Jan Rutta is the only healthy scratch. Paquette is not yet practicing, so he isn’t on the cusp of returning to the team.

Teams located farther from their AHL affiliates typically don’t like to flirt with an injury issue because it’s hard to get a player quickly. There isn’t a direct flight from Syracuse to Tampa and just one a day to Orlando.

Smith played well

Cooper got his first good luck at Smith during training camp. The intensity with which Smith plays impressed him.

MORE LIGHTNING: Steven Stamkos says this will be a long year if the Lightning can't make changes

When Paquette got hurt, Smith got more of an opportunity, stepping in to center the fourth line. He seized it.

The fourth line looked sharp. The players clicked quickly and drove the Lightning through their first two games. Smith scored the Lightning’s first goal in Saturday’s loss to Florida.

Given his good play, the decision to send Smith down is a little interesting. Point coming back does mean the Lightning have 13 healthy forwards, but there isn’t an obvious choice to fill that role.

Carter Verhaeghe played fourth line center on Tuesday after fitting in nicely on the third line for two games. It raises the question of where he will play and who will end up as unlucky No. 13, when Paquette returns.

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

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