When training camp opened prior to the 2016-17 season, rookie forward Brayden Point was not expected to make the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Point had just nine games of pro experience on his resume, that coming in a brief stint with the AHL Syracuse Crunch at the end of the 2014-15 season following a 38-goal, 49-assist performance in juniors with Moose Jaw. Point put up 35 goals and 53 assists a year later for Moose Jaw, and the thought was the talented prospect would spend the entire 2016-17 season with the Crunch with the potential for a brief callup to the Lightning should his play with the Crunch warrant one.
Too, Tampa Bay wasn't exactly hurting at the forward position entering 2016-17. The Lightning returned nearly their entire team after reaching the 2016 Eastern Conference Final for a second-consecutive season and added a couple veteran pieces in the offseason, including former Bolt Cory Conacher from the Swiss A-League.
Quite simply, the Lightning didn't have any openings at forward.
Point, however, forced Lightning coaches and management to rethink their roster.
After turning heads during camp training sessions, Point led the Lightning in goals (3) and tied for the team scoring lead (4 points) in the preseason. Despite more veteran options available in Conacher and Erik Condra, who the Lightning signed as a free agent to a three-year deal the previous offseason, Point made enough of an impact during camp and his four preseason appearances to warrant a roster spot when the regular season opened.
Video: FLA@TBL: Point scores on first career SO attempt
"We thought Brayden would go to Syracuse, and we thought he'd be a real good player for us in Syracuse," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said during his exit day press conference following the conclusion of the 2016-17 regular season. "With really no time table on he's going to be in Syracuse for one year or two years or three years, we felt watching him in junior that he's a real good player, expect him at some point to be a real good NHL player. He came into training camp and performed very well. Prior to that, the rookie tournament, he was very good in Florida, did really good there. Came into preseason and he looked good in practice, he looked good in the preseason games and ultimately when our roster at the start of the season, I said, 'You know what, he's playing pretty good, he deserves to stay. Let's give it a shot, see how he does.' And every time we thought about it, 'You know what? He's playing pretty good. Let's just keep him here, leave him in the lineup.'"
The Lightning left Point in the lineup.
And Point left his rookie season as one of the Bolts' most consistent players and a budding NHL star.
After struggling to find the back of the net early - it took the Calgary, Alberta native 12 games before he netted his first NHL goal - Point finished with 18 goals, ranking fifth among all Lightning skaters in that category.
Point's 18 goals were the most by a Tampa Bay rookie since Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat netted 24 and 23, respectively, in 2013-14, and the fifth-most ever put up by a Lightning rookie, a top five that includes Johnson, Palat, Steven Stamkos (23) and Brad Richards (21).
Point tallied 40 points in 2016-17, ranking eighth in the league among all NHL first-year players.
Keep in mind too Point missed 14 games midway through the season with an upper-body injury. At the time of the injury, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said it was particularly unfortunate because Point was playing his best hockey of the season prior to getting hurt.
When he returned, Point picked up where he left off and continued to improve. He moved to his natural center position and became a dangerous playmaker. Cooper argued that he was the Bolts most consistent player over the course of the season.
"He did unbelievable," Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said. "I think at the beginning, he was working hard, getting all those chances but I think he was in his head a little bit. Actually, after his injury when he came back, I think he kind of calmed down and played more of his game…He had a great year. You could see at the end and he's just going to keep working hard and keep on getting better and that's great for our organization and our team."
Video: NJD@TBL: Point deflects in first career goal
By the end of the season, whether due to performance or trades or injuries to other players, Point had emerged as Tampa Bay's top center. The third round pick (79th overall) in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft played as the pivot between Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov and helped both reach new heights. From February 21 to the end of the regular season, no other player in the league recorded more points than Kucherov, who put up 19 goals and 17 assists over the final 23 games of the regular season.
Palat was second in the league for scoring (3-11-14 in 10 games) from March 23 to the end of the regular season, trailing only Edmonton's Connor McDavid (4-11-15).
"Two years ago when he didn't make the team and I saw him in training camp, I was talking to the guys about how good he is, and I knew he was going to become the player that he is right now," Palat said. "It's not really shocking to me, but he's a great player and it was a lot of fun to play with him."
To be sure, Point has plenty to work on during the offseason. At 5-foot-10, 166 pounds, he needs to continue to get bigger and stronger to handle the rigors of an 82-game regular season plus playoffs. Lightning coaches would like to see him shoot more. His 14.8 percent shooting percentage was fourth-best on the Lightning, but he only took 122 shots, less than half the amount team leader Nikita Kucherov took (246). And, with a 44.7 percent success rate in the face-off circle, he needs to get better taking draws.
But for a player who forced his way onto the roster when there was no room and rewarded coaches and management with one of the best rookie seasons in Lightning history, Point can be expected to be a mainstay in the Lightning lineup for many years to come.
"He's way ahead of the curve that we had expected for him or the plan for him last September," Yzerman said. "Hopefully he has a strong offseason and comes back and continues to (progress). There's no guarantee that you keep going forward and we'll really impress upon him the importance of having a really strong offseason and come in and it's a tough league and you just can't assume it's going to go well. But he's very mature, very responsible young man and he's really worked at his game from the time that we drafted him. He's done everything we've asked to get better and better and looks like our scouts did a great job and found a real good young player."