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Point eyes a return Thursday

Brayden Point was a full participant at Tuesday's practice and could make his season debut as soon as Thursday when the Bolts visit the Maple Leafs

by Bryan Burns /

Tampa Bay Lightning assistant coach Todd Richards wasn't quite ready to proclaim Brayden Point a go for the Bolts' next game Thursday at Toronto.

But all signs, ahem, point to the star center making his season debut in the Six.

Point was a full participant during Tuesday's practice session at the Ice Sports Forum. He took up residence on the Tampa Bay's top power-play unit for the first time since rejoining the team, manning his familiar spot in the slot he used to rack up a NHL-best 20 power-play goals in 2018-19. And he skated on the Lightning's first line alongside Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

Those developments, along with Gemel Smith behind re-assigned to the Lightning's American Hockey League team in Syracuse, would seem to indicate that Point has been deemed fully fit to play.

Video: Point on returning to practice

"There's obviously people that need to clear you first," Point said. "A lot of it is based on feel, and I kind of felt pretty good today. It was another step. Just getting to practice was awesome."

Point had hip surgery in the offseason. Initially, the prognosis was he would be able to return to action in late October. But Lightning head coach Jon Cooper maintained Point appeared to be ahead of schedule.

Tuesday's developments would seem to confirm Cooper's optimism. Point didn't play in Tampa Bay's first three games of the regular season.

"It's exciting. I think it's a boost to our team," Richards said. "We're adding a really good player back into our lineup. For me and for us as coaches, he's one of the guys that really drives the team with the energy out on the ice, the way that he plays, not only making plays in the offensive zone but he's a particularly good two-way player. He works both ends of the ice. A great addition putting him back into the lineup."

Where Point slots into the lineup once he returns is of interest too. Tuesday, he was centering the top line with Stamkos on his left and Kucherov on his right, a high-powered trio made up of all three 40-goal scorers from the Bolts' 2018-19 season on one line. That combination would certainly give opponents pause for concern. It might also be smart to split up some of that firepower to more evenly spread out the Lightning's best offensive threats.

Wherever he ends up, he'll make the players around him better.

"Playing with him, you have to play fast because he's a fast player. He forces you to skate," Richards said. "He forces you to keep up with him. He can be one of the guys that really drives the speed of our game, the speed of our game in that particular shift. I think the other thing he does is he has a creative mind where he can think and he can anticipate and think on the same level as like a Kucherov where they see the same plays and I think that's why they're able to make such fast, quick plays with the puck because they're both on the same page. So he helps drive it. I'm expecting us as a team, if he is in the lineup on Thursday, to be a faster team just by the way that he plays, the style that he plays. He forces everyone to play faster."

Point set career highs for goals (41), assists (51), points (92) and power-play goals (20) in 2018-19 to further establish himself as one of the best young talents in the game. Coming off his entry-level deal, Point hadn't signed a new contract by the start of training camp and wasn't allowed to participate. Once he inked a three-year deal midway through camp, Point was able to get back out on the ice with his teammates but in a red no-contact jersey.

Now, it appears as if Point has cleared his last major hurdle to seeing game action.

Video: Hedman on Bolts intense practice

"A long summer, a lot of rehab, a lot of skating by myself and here too," Point said. "The guys would kind of do their practice, and then I'd skate after. It's a lot of self drills, but just good to be back with the team."

His return will be a welcome addition for a Lightning team that has stumbled a bit out of the blocks with a 1-1-1 record heading to Toronto for an important early-season division tilt.

"For us, everyone just can't look at Pointer and say, 'He's back. He's going to do it all.' He's such an important player to our group," Victor Hedman said. "Super excited to see him hustling around out there. To get one of those players back is a boost to our team and make us even better."

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