The Lightning have three options for Yanni Gourde. They can use him as a winger in the top six and focus his duties on retrievals and creating opportunities in traffic in front of the net. He could slide into the third-line center role, replacing Anthony Cirelli, and relish the role of hemming opponent’s top lines in their own end. In this scenario, any scoring he offers is a bonus. Or the Lightning could admit Gourde’s contract was shortsighted, and ask for his consent to trade him during or after this season.
The line that Yanni Gourde logged the most time on last season was comprised of Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat. The results were surprisingly poor. At 5v5, no line had a worse Goals Plus-Minus than that trio, who finished with a pitiful -9. For perspective, only one other line finished in the negatives, and that was the J.T. Miller-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan fourth line. And it wasn’t just bad puck luck for Gourde’s line. They posted a -5 Corsi Plus-Minus, fourth worst on the Lightning. In 241 minutes, this triumvirate demonstrated that Gourde, who is more effective than Palat, cannot be the second-best player on a line or performance flags. Instead, he is better suited for a role where the other two forwards ferry the puck and create the offense, and he drives to the net.
The other two lines that Gourde logged the most minutes on were Tyler Johnson-Brayden Point-Gourde and Nikita Kucherov-Point-Gourde. The numbers with both Point lines were better, and that is due to differing responsibilities. On the Stamkos line, Gourde needed to be a puck transporter and playmaker. When he played with Point, his assignment was to work off the puck because the forwards he was playing with were more than happy to dominate the puck. It worked: both lines finished with a +3 Goals Plus-Minus and a Corsi Plus-Minus that was over +5.
Miller is now in Vancouver. Palat is no longer capable of playing top-six forward minutes. Cirelli deserves more ice time with better players. With that knowledge, I think Cooper should start the season with the Johnson-Point-Gourde line, and then he can utilize the Cirelli-Stamkos-Kucherov trio that demonstrated promise in the forgettable Columbus series. With Point and Johnson exploding along the perimeter, Gourde can make himself useful occupying the middle.
If Cirelli joins Kucherov and Stamkos on the first line, or is moved into the top six, that leaves an important vacancy in the third-line center spot. The Lightning won 62 games for many reasons, but an important one, though little discussed, was the success of the Miller-Cirelli- Alex Killorn line. At 5v5, this line finished with 15 Goals for and only 3 Goals against, with that +12 being the best differential on the Lightning. They were also stellar at controlling shot attempts, hovering around 60 percent for Corsi percentage. Most impressively, their usage was tough! Their Zone-Start Ratio was 40 percent, meaning Cooper was happy to deploy them to take tougher draws, and they still managed to dominate possession. With Cirelli poised for bigger and better things, and Miller gone, Gourde could try to fill that void.
The expectations for Gourde would shift dramatically. For the last two seasons, he has finished fourth among Lightning forwards in scoring, trailing only the Big Three. If he slides in as the plucky, indefatigable third-line center, he will be embracing taxing usage and/or facing the top scoring line of the opponent.
Gourde has the acceleration to be disruptive in transition defense, and his talent for springing breakaways would give the third line he is spearheading extra bite. Most importantly, it would benefit the Lightning’s first two lines, but Gourde’s scoring would dip, possibly dramatically. He scored 22 goals last year, but with better puck luck he could have bested his 2017-18 total of 25. Cirelli is poised for maybe 30 goals, but where the rest of the supplementary scoring comes from is murky.
This season will start Gourde’s six-year contract with a cap hit of $5.16M. If Gourde is just a complementary player, that may be too much cap space when the Lightning will need to sign Andrei Vasilevskiy, Cirelli, Erik Cernak, Mathieu Joseph, and possibly Mikhail Sergachev in the not-too-distant future. With Sergei Bobrovsky getting a new $70M contract on a $10M cap hit, I think it is fair to guess Vasilevskiy will be asking for the same money considering he is younger and arguably better than Bob. Not to mention, we still don’t know what Point’s second contract will look like, and if it is a bridge deal, the Lightning will presumably need to pay him big bucks in two years. With the NHL salary cap going up incrementally, where will this money come from?
The Lightning spend too much time passing and skating on the perimeter. Gourde alleviates this nettlesome habit by playing inside the dots and bringing attitude. Gourde knows that if he keeps his stick on the ice and arcs toward the middle, the puck will find him. Still, with Gourde’s speed and tenacity, you would expect him to be a better forechecker. He is adequate at retrievals and on the cycle, but not overwhelming, and at 27 years old, this is likely as good as it will get.
GM Julien BriseBois recognized Miller didn’t fit into the long-term plan for the Lightning, and recouped value on the trade with the Canucks. How Gourde performs, and what capacity he assumes, will make him a player to watch as the season unfolds.