When Yanni Gourde made his NHL debut back in the 2015-16 season, he looked like the quintessential Tampa Bay Lightning forward. As an undersized, undrafted free-agent with incredible scoring potential, he led the QMJHL in scoring during the 2011-12 season en route to winning league MVP.
After that impressive season, Gourde earned a contract with the San Jose Sharks franchise, where he struggled to establish himself in the AHL, got sent down to the ECHL, and was eventually released. Seeing a player with potential, the Lightning signed Gourde to a two-year ‘show me’ deal to see if he could develop into an NHL starter.
From there, it’s all history. Gourde would break out with the Syracuse Crunch, Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, eventually earning a full-time starting role with the Lightning in 2017-18. During his rookie season, he set franchise scoring records with 25 goals and 64 points, cementing his role with the Bolts.
When he was due for an extension in 2019, the Lightning rewarded his hard play with a six-year, $31 million contract. Now locked down, Gourde produced 22 goals and 46 points through the 2018-19 season, showing that his rookie year wasn’t a fluke.
Gourde Struggled Throughout 2019-20
Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Lightning thought they knew what they had with Gourde. At a minimum, he should be a top-six 20-goal scoring forward who plays the puck hard and is able to take on special teams playing time.
As the 2019-20 season progressed, however, things were relatively bad for Gourde. In 70 games, he only posted 10 goals and 30 points while seeing his ice time fall to just 14 minutes a night.
By the delay of the regular season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gourde’s $5.1 million contract was often derided as one of the worst for the Lightning. Yes, he was still playing a strong defensive game, posting Fenwick and Corsi-for above 50 percent and sitting second in takeaways behind only Anthony Cirelli, but his scoring just wasn’t there.
Due to all of this, it was uncertain where Gourde would land when the playoffs started. Everyone knew that he has top-six potential, but it was uncertain if he would be able to get things going again when the Lightning needed him most.
Gourde Finding a New Life on the Third-Line
As the Lightning made their way to Toronto for the Round Robin games, head coach John Cooper found a new look for Gourde. Returning him to his natural position of center, he placed trade deadline acquisitions Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow on his wings.
While they haven’t been scoring at an incredible pace, they have been, arguably, the Lightning’s best line so far this postseason. When they are on the ice, you notice them, as they work hard every shift to shut down their opponents.
Most importantly, Gourde has been the driving factor for this line. He is pushing play, helping the third line assert their will while leading the team in takeaways and playing a smart, defensive game.
Will Gourde Be a Difference Maker for the Lightning?
Ultimately, what matters most for the Lightning is that Gourde starts to find his scoring touch again. Even if he is playing well defensively, you need depth scoring to win in the playoffs.
During Tampa Bay’s first game of Round 1 of the playoffs, Gourde scored his first goal of the postseason in the opening seconds of the third period, which tied the game and helped the Lightning win in a 5OT epic.
Yes, it was a lucky bounce that was kicked in by the goaltender, but it was the kind of goal that you must have to succeed in the playoffs. It wasn’t pretty, but it was an opportunity created by Gourde and his refusal to let a play die.
If the Lightning are going to get past the Columbus Blue Jackets and make a deep run in the playoffs, they will need more production from Gourde like this. He has to find ways to score, whether they are perfect shots from the point or a lucky tip-in right in front of the net.
So far in the playoffs, he has looked ready to show that the 2019-20 season was just a down year. Hopefully, Gourde will be able to showcase why he deserved that extension from the Lightning, and that he is ready to be one of the leaders of their playoff charge.
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.