Gourde Makes Most of Opportunity After ’Road Less Traveled’ 

By Steven DiOssi

For some young prospects like Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, or Brayden Point, their road to the NHL is a fast one. But for others, playing at the game’s highest level doesn’t come as quickly. It’s a matter of putting in hard work, developing their game, and pushing hard for that next opportunity. 

Yanni Gourde knows all about waiting for an opportunity. And since being recalled by the Tampa Bay Lightning from the Syracuse Crunch on March 6, he’s been making the most of his. Especially lately. 

He’s scored goals in back-to-back games for the first time in his 16-game NHL career, including a dramatic overtime winner against the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday, capping a comeback from a three-goal deficit in what was undoubtedly the Lightning’s most important victory of the season up to this point. 

The Lightning enter Saturday’s contest against the Montreal Canadiens just three points behind the Boston Bruins for a wild card playoff spot with six games to go. Because of the tight race in the East, each game takes on a playoff-like atmosphere. And with the Lightning playing without a handful of their regular top forwards, it’s giving players like Gourde an opportunity to play a meaningful role in big games at the NHL level.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper is utilizing Gourde’s speed and versatility, playing him at center and on the wing. Gourde’s seen the ice in shorthanded situations and during the 3-on-3 overtime in a virtual must-win for the Lightning against the Blackhawks on Monday.

Ask the 25-year-old forward about being a part of intense games with a lot on the line and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s amazing,” Gourde said Thursday. “It’s just really amazing to be a part of this portion [of the season] and getting that chance to be up here in such a critical moment for the team and being able to help the team out a little bit in [different] situations, so it’s fun.”

Gourde’s performance during his call-up, and the road he took to get there, has earned the admiration of Cooper.

“He is the ‘road less traveled’ for sure,” Cooper said after Gourde’s game-winning goal. “It was not [but] a couple of years ago he was playing in the east coast league [ECHL].

“There’s a player that a will and a want gets you to where you want to be. He’s proving it right now.”

Gourde’s path to scoring an overtime winner in the NHL helps to better explain why he’s making the most of his chance this season.

After going undrafted during his draft year, the 5’9”, 172-pound forward led the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in scoring with 124 points and was the league’s MVP in his final season with the Victoriaville Tigres. After beginning his professional career with the Worcester Sharks in the American Hockey League, he split time between the Sharks and the lower-level ECHL during parts of the next three seasons. 

He joined the Lightning organization with the Syracuse Crunch near the tail end of the 2013-14 season as a free agent after signing a two-year, two-way NHL contract for the next two seasons. The following year he led the Crunch with 29 goals and was second with 57 points in a breakout season for him at the pro level. 

He got his first taste of the NHL during a two-game call-up last December and notched one assist while averaging just more than seven minutes per game. After 44 points in 65 contests with the Crunch in 2015-16, he was re-signed to a one-year, two-way contract this past summer.

Fast forward to this season, however, and things have gone a bit differently. After a two-game look with the Lightning in December, he’s played in 12 more since his March recall. During Thursday’s 5-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings, he had a goal for the second straight game and saw a career-high 22:44 of ice time. The Lightning, who were forced to dress just 11 forwards with Nikita Kucherov out due to illness, moved Gourde from centering Adam Erne and Joel Vermin to start the game, up to playing wing on the top line with Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat

“It’s pretty amazing,” Gourde said of the first-line opportunity. “They are very good players …Palat is such a hard worker and he has such good patience with the puck, so it’s fun to play with these guys.”

Lining up with Point and Palat Thursday was no accident. 

Sure, Kucherov was out of the lineup, but Cooper spoke recently about the similarities in the games of Gourde and Point — something that certainly played into his decision to put them together that night.

“[Gourde] plays with energy [and] he just hounds pucks,” Cooper said. “He and Pointer [Point] have a lot of similarities in that regard, how they just hound pucks.”

Cooper needed that out of his lineup in a physical game against Detroit and it paid off, as Palat assisted on Gourde’s third-period marker.

Gourde credits the coaching style of Crunch head coach Ben Groulx and his staff as one of the ways it’s helped his Syracuse teammates at the NHL level this season.

“We’re playing with a lot of patience in Syracuse. We’re trying to play fast,” Gourde said. “Ben [Groulx] puts a lot of emphasis on playing fast and hard so that’s exactly what I’m trying to bring up here.

“When you are getting the call [to the Lightning], what you’re doing is you are trying to bring the same game as you are in Syracuse.”

While Gourde and his Syracuse teammates are not finding their way onto the score sheet each night with the Lightning, the contributions of players like Gourde, Jake Dotchin, Erne, Luke Witkowski, and Vermin are figuring in a bit to the team’s final results in games. 

“I think there’s a group of players that have come up here [from Syracuse] that are just playing with a ’not to let anybody down’ [mentality],” Cooper said after Monday’s game. “They’re playing with ‘we belong here’, they’re playing with ‘we are a part of this organization.’ They are playing with everything that says, ‘team.’”

It’s perhaps a combination of the Lightning’s situation right now and Gourde’s taking the road less traveled that figures into his performance right now. But there’s also a healthy dose of humility, too.

“It’s so fun to be out there in these situations and it’s fun to kind of take advantage [of it] and showing what I can do,” he said Thursday.

“I appreciate it a lot — the opportunity I am getting right now.”