Insights and Observations: Brayden Point possesses a secretly elite skill

The Tampa Bay Lightning's lethal power play often revolves around Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, but Point's work from the bumper can't be ignored.

Welcome to Insights and Observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines and general musings around the NHL.

This week we look at the best power play bumper in the league, the West versus the East, a surprise player helping the Penguins third line, the Patrick Laine experiment, and Casey Mittelstadt emerging in Buffalo.

Brayden Point's magic from the bumper

When players think of playing on the power play, there's usually a focus on being the half-wall player, or if they are a defenseman, quarterbacking a power play from the point, with the man advantage running through you on the half-wall or at the top with consistent puck touches. There are also certain players that love to battle in front of the net, imposing their will, standing in front of 100 mile per hour one-timers and trying to bang in rebounds.

The least discussed part of the modern-day power play, and a relatively new position overall, is the bumper spot, which positions skaters in the high slot to rove close to the puck and act as a relief outlet for the half-wall player. If that half-wall player is being pressured, they can easily pass to the bumper spot to open things back up. Bumper players can also hang by the net for high tips, or swoop in for rebounds while the net front player is engaged in a battle.

When it comes to playing the bumper spot, there may not be a better player in the league at it than Brayden Point. It also helps that the Lightning's power play also boasts Nikita Kucherov, perhaps the best 5v4 player in the league. Still, Point finished tied for third in the league in power play goals last season, with his peers in the top five generally playing along the half-wall to load up one-timers.

Part of what makes Point so exceptional is his ability to read his teammates and his understanding of spacing. Watch him here, moments before Victor Hedman sends a slap pass, manipulate his body, moving about a foot over to give Hedman a better angle to make the feed. From there it’s a quick tap in for the tally.

Point also takes advantage with the extra man by making himself open in the high slot area. When teams inevitably overcommit on Kucherov and Stamkos, Point is open and available for the pass, then can turn and fire wrist shots like this:

Where the Bolts power play finds another level is Point's passing capabilities. This Stamkos goal is tremendous, but watch Point help Tampa Bay gain the zone, then make the right read by tapping it back (instead of trying to shoot), then not making a play on the puck going cross-ice right in front of him because he understands where it is supposed to go.

It helps to be surrounded by the type of talent Point has, but he’s also knocking on the door of being top 10 in power play points while barely touching the puck. When he does, however, he makes it count.

TAMPA, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 22: Brayden Point #21 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates a goal in the second period during a game against the Winnipeg Jets at Amalie Arena on November 22, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

West Coast best Coast

With American Thanksgiving here, the standings are starting to settle into place as teams begin to dial up the intensity. Something that stands out early on is the inequity between the two conferences, with one that looks significantly deeper than the other.

The Seattle Kraken currently hold the final playoff spot in the West with a .500 points percentage, but in the East, that mark would not only be outside of the final playoff spot, it would be behind three other teams.

The Western Conference is particularly top-heavy early on, with 6 of the top 10 teams in the league currently out West, though the top two teams in the league are from the East. Last season, the Winnipeg Jets were the lowest seeded playoff team in the West with 95 points, though they had more points than the playoff-bound Islanders with 93 points and Panthers with 92 points. The last two seasons prior to the 2022-23 campaign, the three lowest point total teams all came from the Western Conference.

The last two Stanley Cup champions have also come from the West, and in both cases neither the Avalanche nor Golden Knights had to play a full 7 game series en route to the Stanley Cup. Their opponents, the Lightning and Panthers, however, each did.

The top teams in the West are elite, and they've been rewarded by getting to play relatively weak teams in the First Round. In the East, there’s a deeper mix of strong teams, meaning that some will miss the playoffs altogether.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - OCTOBER 10: The Stanley Cup is displayed as (L-R) Paul Cotter #43, Jonathan Marchessault #81, Brayden McNabb #3, Brett Howden #21 and Jack Eichel #9 of the Vegas Golden Knights watch the 2023 Stanley Cup championship banner being raised during a ceremony before the team's home opener against the Seattle Kraken at T-Mobile Arena on October 10, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Golden Knights defeated the Kraken 4-1. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The Stanley Cup has run through the Western Conference in recent years, but in many respects, the Eastern Conference has been more competitive. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

A diamond in the rough for Pittsburgh?

As the Pittsburgh Penguins top players continue defying age curves while producing big numbers to begin the season, Pittsburgh's bottom six has provided next to nothing in terms of value. Veteran Jeff Carter is still without a point, regulars Noel Acciari and Matt Nieto have just two each, while Drew O’Connor has served as a high octane engine with a meager four points in 18 games. Enter Radim Zohorna.

Zohorna is a very interesting player. Undrafted and standing at a hulking 6-foot-6, he was originally signed out of Czechia by the Penguins in 2020 and played 25 NHL games with them over two seasons, scoring a respectable 10 points. Eventually, he was claimed off waivers by the Calgary Flames, dressing for just 8 games but only playing more than 8:01 twice and going pointless during his tenure.

The Czech forward was solid in the AHL, however, with 29 points in 40 games, leading the Maple Leafs and then GM Kyle Dubas to acquire him at the 2023 trade deadline to bolster their American League team. When Dubas made the move to Pittsburgh, Dubas reunited with him as a UFA, inking him to a one-year pact.

Notably, Zohorna actually began the season in the minors, but with the Penguins aforementioned depth struggling, Jansen Harkins was waived to make room, and Zohorna hasn't looked back. Since scoring in his first game of the season, the forward is ninth among regular Penguins forwards in average even strength time on ice per game, generally playing with Lars Eller and O’Connor, and even earning a look up the lineup alongside Evgeni Malkin recently.

He’s a late bloomer with some skill that can make plays below the top of the circle when his linemates get the puck to him there. At 27, he’s getting a real shot right now on a team with legitimate playoff aspirations and is making a strong case to be a full-time NHLer.

Blue Jackets experimenting, and failing

Patrick Laine's recent healthy scratch has been heavily publicized and discussed, but lost in that shuffle is that the Blue Jackets have been playing him at a new position this season, too.

When Columbus signed Johnny Gaudreau two summers ago, the big question was who would play center on a team flush with wingers but thin down the middle? Columbus does appear to have an answer in 2023 third-overall selection Adam Fantilli, but the Blue Jackets have been cautious with their young star, who is playing a modest 15:41 per game so far — not exactly notable top six minutes.

The reality is that wingers have the least ability to drive play of any position, and the Blue Jackets' top two talents at forward play the flanks. As such, each is functionally stapled to their of the ice, while, unlike a defenseman, they don’t tend to have the play right in front of them to dictate what is happening (nor is the puck on their stick as much as a blueliner).

Now, Gaudreau is in the midst of a tremendous slump, while Laine continues bouncing between center and wing and has seen his game spiral out of control. There's no doubting Laine's talent, particularly given that he had 56 points in 56 games two seasons ago and 52 in 55 last season. He is still very productive, but it's hard to impact the game much from the wing unless you possess special talent among the likes of Brad Marchand or Matthew Tkachuk.

Instead, there are lessons to be learned on several fronts about how the Blue Jackets have gone about this saga. First and foremost, it reaffirms the importance of building your team up the middle, which is not just an old adage, but a tried and true method for success.

COLUMBUS, OHIO - OCTOBER 12: Patrik Laine #29 of the Columbus Blue Jackets skates during the second period of a game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Nationwide Arena on October 12, 2023 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Patrik Laine experiment is failing in Columbus. (Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images)

Secondly, there is a lesson to be learned about putting players in position to succeed. The Blue Jackets played a similarly poor Chicago team, but bumped Laine back to the wing beside Fantilli. Predictably, both had strong games, individually and as a unit.

For all his talents, Laine has never shown an affinity for playing defense his entire career, so much so that he has joked about it with the media. While he does need to be held accountable, the type of defensive attention and positioning needed to play center on a nightly basis in the NHL is a huge change in his game.

It’s clear Laine is a winger and that Columbus needs more from the center position as well — Cole Sillinger for instance, has struggled, but finally scored his first goal of the season in game 20, almost in December. That search, however, can’t come at the expense of the talent you do have.

The evolution of Casey Mittelstadt

It seems like forever ago Casey Mittelstadt was unable to do a single pull-up and managed only one 160 pound rep on the bench press at the draft combine.

That showing led to all sorts of criticism and snickering ahead of the 2017 draft, and how much it impacted the projected top-five pick's fall to pick eight is anyone’s guess. He did drop, though, and it was a long road from there.

Mittelstadt played one season of college, turned pro and experienced some immediate success with 5 points in 6 games during a brief cameo to end the 2017-2018 season. His next season, however, did not go nearly as well. The youngster put up just 25 points in 77 games, while the following season under a new head coach went even worse, posting just 9 points in 31 games before a mid-December demotion to the AHL. After that, during the shortened COVID season, he posted a respectable 22 points in 41 games, while an injury-riddled 2021-22 saw him score just 19 points in 40 games.

Finally, last season, after yet another slow start, — in part, head coach Don Granato explained, due to playing tentatively as injury concerns lingered — Mittelstadt finally settled in. His big breakout of sorts, however, finally arrived at the end of the season.

With Buffalo making a furious playoff push, Tage Thompson, their star center, was struggling through an injury, prompting the Sabres to promote Mittelstadt to top-line center between Alex Tuch and Jeff Skinner. In his final 11 games, Mittelstadt scored 5 goals and had 17 points as the Sabres went 8-2-1, falling just shy of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Now 25 (his birthday was this week), he has carried that momentum forward this season, with 15 points in 19 games to start the campaign. His hands in tight are excellent, and there’s a real confidence to his game now. When you choose to keep, shoot and score on a 3-on-1 with Jeff Skinner cranked and ready, it's abundantly clear that there's no shortage of confidence to be had anymore.

It has been a long road for the 2017 eighth-overall pick, but even looking at his draft class, he’s still top ten in point scoring with his game ascending into his mid-20s. The Sabres were patient with Mittelstadt, and he is rewarding them handsomely.