As the NHL season approaches, many teams find themselves at an impasse with their restricted free agents (RFAs). Despite training camp being only a few short weeks away, RFAs across the league still sit unsigned as players and management struggle to come to terms on an extension.
Heading into the offseason, this RFA question loomed large for the Tampa Bay Lightning. With Brayden Point due a significant pay raise in 2019, Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois went about clearing cap space to make room for his blooming star.
Despite trading a few contracts in order to clear space for Point, the young center still sits unsigned. While the assumption is that he will be signed and ready to go for training camp, there is a chance that he sits out along with the other big-name RFA’s who are waiting for the perfect deal.
This creates an interesting question for the Lightning. If Point remains unsigned for the start of the 2019-20 season, what impact will it have on the franchise?
What the Lightning Lose Without Point
In order for the Lightning to even temporarily replace Point, they have to fully understand his impact on the team. First off, since joining the league in the 2016-17 season, he has been a consistent scoring threat, posting 41 goals and 92 points last season alone.
Not only is Point scoring goals at an impressive rate, but is also timely with his goalscoring. In his first three NHL seasons, he posted 21 game-winning goals, sitting behind only Nikita Kucherov’s 22 game-winning goals for Lightning players. He also has six overtime goals in his career, which is far and away the most for a player on Tampa Bay’s roster in that same time span.
What makes Point a truly great player, though, is his defensive play. In the 2018-19 season, he had a Fenwick and Corsi for above 57 percent, meaning that when he was on the ice, he controlled the puck along with the flow of the game.
Point is also a key special teams contributor, as he plays on both the power play and the penalty kill. Despite posting 20 points on the man advantage, his contributions on the penalty kill are some of his most important to the team.
What this all means for the Lightning is that they would need to do more than replace Point’s goalscoring acumen. They would have to find a player who can be both a scoring threat and a defensive stalwart.
Could Johnson Fill in for Point?
Even if there is no real replacement for a jack-of-all-trades player like Point, the Lightning are well equipped to fill in for him temporarily should he holdout to start off the season.
The first and most obvious answer would be Tyler Johnson. As an established NHL center who has played in the Lightning’s top-six for the better part of five seasons, Johnson could take over the second-line center role that he lost to Point over the last two seasons.
While Johnson has not scored anywhere near Point’s 92 points throughout his career, he still is a consistent player who could thrive once again in his natural center position. While this would be far from an ideal situation, it at least gives the Lightning a natural option should the situation present itself.
Is Cirelli the Perfect Point Replacement?
If Johnson is not capable of taking over Point’s role, the Lightning could turn to Anthony Cirelli to fill in as their second-line center. As a defensive-first forward who is also a deft scorer, Cirelli could bring with him many of the same properties that make Point such a dangerous player.
Sure, he likely wouldn’t be scoring 90 points, but Cirelli could see his already impressive rookie scoring totals increase with consistent playing time on the Lightning’s top-six along with prominent time on the power play.
More importantly, Cirelli is a defensive stalwart who steadily developed his two-way game throughout his rookie season. As said by Steve Marowski of THW:
Cirelli developed about as quickly as any player could in the NHL and he became an essential part of the NHL lineup almost overnight. Without a strong two-way, penalty-killing forward like Cirelli, the Lightning wouldn’t have led the league in penalty killing.
So, while he may not be able to produce on the scoresheet like Point, Cirelli is one of the few players on the Lightning’s roster that could emulate his all-important defensive play. This makes him a viable option for the franchise should the Bolts need to turn to him at the start of the season.
Hold out Hope for Point to Re-Sign
Simply put, the best-case scenario for the Lightning is to just get Point re-signed. While he is likely asking for a massive contract relative to his age and RFA status, he has proven that he is worth the money with his all-around play.
However, if Tampa Bay and Point play hardball and no deal is reached by the start of the season, the team is not completely stuck, either. While it may not be ideal, either Johnson or Cirelli could be an adequate replacement while a contract is negotiated.
Should this be a permanent solution? Likely not. But it’s better to have the options available rather than no option at all.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.