How BriseBois Could Lose Leverage in Talks with Point
The brinkmanship between Lightning GM Julien BriseBois and Brayden Point’s agent Gerry Johannson is about to hit a new phase. The Lightning are poised to start training camp without Point, although there have been murmurs of encouraging developments. According to the Tampa Bay Times, both BriseBois and Johannson have expressed confidence that a deal will get done imminently, or at least before the regular season starts.
This confidence that a deal will be struck soon is somewhat reassuring, but the failure to get the contract completed as the summer has come and gone, and despite managing to dump J.T. Miller and Ryan Callahan off Tampa’s books, makes one wonder if the Lightning franchise will come to the table with the necessary urgency. Coach Jon Cooper demonstrated a similar self-assurance that his team would find its footing against Columbus, and before he could throw out his gum wrapper they were ousted from the postseason.
If this becomes a William Nylander situation, where the regular season does begin without Point, BriseBois could lose significant leverage. He may overplay his hand. Here I muse over what pitfalls could change the Lightning’s demeanor from composed to frantic.
The lack of depth scoring becomes more pronounced
The Lightning are one of the few teams that could remove Point from a top-two center role and slot a center into his spot who would still be very effective. Anthony Cirelli, as discussed in this space before, is one of the Lightning’s best five forwards and is poised for a leap forward this season. It is conceivable that 2019-20 is the year he demonstrates that he belongs in the top four group with Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Point. But the problem has less to do with Cirelli than who he would be playing with.
If Point is not in the lineup, then Kucherov would likely have Stamkos as his center, and that becomes the Lightning’s dynamic first line. Cooper likes Ondrej Palat despite his many shortcomings, so maybe he is the left wing with Kucherov and Stamkos? So, what would the second line look like? Perhaps Yanni Gourde, Cirelli, and Tyler Johnson? Maybe Alex Killorn plays left wing in lieu of Gourde so that the talent is spread out more. The Gourde-Cirelli-Johnson line only had five minutes of ice time together last year, but the Killorn-Cirelli-Johnson trio had nearly fifteen minutes of time on ice last season, so we got a taste of what it could look like.
The Killorn-Cirelli-Johnson line had a -3 Corsi Plus-Minus at 5v5 and allowed four Scoring Chances while creating three. Not great. Oddly, when Johnson played with Cirelli, the two just didn’t click. Cirelli is one of the Lightning’s best players at influencing possession, and he is a vulture around the puck. Yet the Cirelli-Johnson duo had a -15 Corsi Plus-Minus in almost 34 minutes together. Their Scoring Chances differential was -11. But Cirelli’s lack of chemistry with Johnson isn’t an anomaly. When Cirelli played with Palat, another possible partner if Cirelli steps into the No. 2 center role in Point’s stead, the two finished even in Corsi Plus-Minus and in the red in Scoring Chances differential, albeit in 31 minutes. All of these samples are tiny, but they highlight an important point. The depth for the Lightning is flimsy, and if they lose one of their core players, the offense could short-circuit.
All of this time has been focused on the first two lines when the third and fourth lines could be painfully weak. It is worth remembering that J.T. Miller finished two points shy of being fourth among Bolts forwards in scoring. But Miller was sent packing to Vancouver. Yes, he was disappointing in his only full season in Tampa Bay, but Cooper also buried him even though he added playmaking. Losing him hurts their scoring, and that lack of depth is exacerbated without Point.
More pertinently, how would the re-slotting affect the role players? Would Killorn be able to produce any offense without Cirelli as his center? Does playing with weaker linemates on a third or fourth line stunt Mathieu Joseph’s development? With Point in the lineup, Cooper can afford to intersperse Joseph with the first two lines, and maybe increase his ice time. Without Point, they may not be able to sustain Joseph’s defensive vulnerabilities and Joseph could see his even-strength time on ice drop to the single digits.
It is also unclear whether Cedric Paquette can repeat his scoring from last season, in a non-contract year. And while Patrick Maroon is friendly with Cooper, he may not add anything more than physicality. He surely isn’t bringing speed. These are the type of depth issues the Lightning should be motivated to avoid. Shine a light, and you can get exposed. Replacing a player who contributes 92 points is a daunting task.
Point has never been as good at controlling possession as one might hope for from an all-star player, but partly that is matchup based. Cooper uses Point against the opponent’s No. 1 center and his attendant wingers, giving the Stamkos line an easier matchup. Point always embraced the challenge, sinking deep in his own zone and consistently helping to ferry the puck out of the defensive zone, acting as a one-man transition. If Point is absent, who assumes this role? If it is the Kucherov-Stamkos duo, does that blunt their scoring impact? And if Cooper uses Cirelli’s line in this role, how top-heavy does the Lightning scoring become?
The Lightning defense was a mess without Victor Hedman (and with him injured in a cameo) against Columbus. The Lightning struggled to control possession. They were the slower team and consistently lost races to the puck. The breakout fractured, and the forwards were useless in terms of aiding the defense on their retrievals. The Lightning won’t be playing a deep and well-coached Blue Jackets squad every other night—but taking away Point, their fastest player who also happens to buoy their zone exits, is problematic.
If the Lightning were to suffer an injury to Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, or Andrei Vasilevskiy, things could get ugly. The Lightning’s success is largely driven by their stars, and removing one of them has deleterious effects. Remove two and anything could happen. The Lightning are in a Cup-or-Bust mentality. After dominating the regular season and face-planting in the postseason, they should be using all 82 games as a lab, experimenting to create the most versatile, unpredictable squad possible. They need to learn how to forecheck, have a variety of power-play looks, develop their depth, and workshop different ways to win.
By BriseBois taking such a hard line with Point, and possibly compromising his training camp and preseason, and maybe the start of the regular season, the Lightning could be thrown off-kilter. Maybe some early season adversity would be a good thing; after all, the Lightning never faced it last year, and when they finally did in the first round, they sputtered. But when negotiating the contract for a player whose long-term viability with the team doesn’t seem to be in any doubt, the Lightning’s stern posture may prove costly.