The Tampa Bay Lightning announced this afternoon that they have re-signed forward Yanni Gourde to a six-year extension worth $31 million. That averages out to about $5.2 million per season.
Gourde scored 64 points in his first full NHL season in 2017-2018. This year, he is off to a fast start with 12 points in 12 games. The contract will start next summer. Had the team not signed him before July 1, 2019, he would have become an unrestricted free agent. Gourde will be 27 when the new contract begins, and he will turn 33 during the final season.
Why this works
Gourde was an undrafted prospect who was famously overlooked after his draft year despite putting up 124 points in the QMJHL in 2011-2012. He earned his way into the Lightning organization in the spring of 2014 following a strong showing in the ECHL and AHL that season.
He joined the Syracuse Crunch full time in 2014-2015 and spent the bulk of three seasons there scoring well and being a key member of the team’s deep playoff run in 2016-2017. That was the same season he earned his first extended look with the Lightning.
He got his opportunity due to a slew of injuries to the forwards during a down year for the Lightning. He was one of the bright spots of that year emerging as a force during the second half and contributing to a strong finish that nearly allowed the team to creep into the playoffs.
Heading into last season, the questions was whether he would be able to continue the torrid pace he set for himself in the spring of 2017. But he was up to the task, earning a permanent spot on the team and becoming one of the more consistent all-around contributors on the team.
He’s played much of this season in the top six, including getting minutes on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point. He spent late last season on the third line with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn, driving that line to success and giving the Lightning three dangerous lines. Without him, that line has struggled to score so far this season. Before joining the third line, he bounced around the top three lines and often found success with whatever linemates he was with.
He and Point in particular have combined to form a dynamic duo. Their relentless forechecking and speed-based game create havoc for opposing defenses and goaltenders. Gourde is also fearless in driving the net, often being seen battling with defensemen that seam to be twice his size for loose pucks.
Cap issues going forward
On the cap side of things, it certainly brings up some questions for the Lightning and what their plans are for this coming summer. The general consensus is that the cap should be going up to around $82 million for the 2019-20 season. For now, we’ll use that as our assumption of the salary cap for next year.
If we include all of the players currently on the roster that are signed for next year, the Lightning now would have about $9.5 million in cap space. They would need at least three more forwards and four more defensemen to fill out the roster. The biggest restricted free agent name on the list is Brayden Point. The smaller names include Adam Erne, Cedric Paquette, and Danick Martel up front and Slater Koekkoek on the back end.
The one name on the roster that could be an immediate casualty is Ryan Callahan. Callahan has continued to be a useful player on the fourth line, but injuries and reduced role over the past few years have made him an overpriced player. Buying out Callahan’s $5.8 million contract would reduce his cap hit to $2.67 million over the new two seasons. Alternatively, if the Lightning can find a trade partner within his Modified No Trade Clause (M-NTC) list, that would be even better.
Even assuming a Callahan buy out, that leaves us with $12.7 million to work with. If the Lightning wish to make a big splash on defense for say... Erik Karlsson? Then the team would have to make even more room under the salary cap. That kind of big fish free agent signing would also make it likely that Brayden Point would have to be signed to a shorter term, lower-cap-hit bridge contract. There are pros and cons and risks with a bridge contract as well as a long-term deal. (See: William Nylander.)
In the immediate future for 2019-20, only J.T. Miller is a viable trade candidate as he holds a M-NTC. 2020-21 would see Alex Killorn added to the list of tradeable forwards. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat would likewise see their NTCs turned into M-NTCs starting in the 2021-22 season. Another consideration will be the potential of a more expensive contract being “lost” in the expansion draft when Seattle enters the league.
There are still a lot of moving pieces in terms of the salary cap. The rise of some young prospects can make a big difference. Mitchell Stephens, Alex Volkov, Erik Cernak, Dominik Masin, and Cal Foote could all play into the roster decisions for next season. Each of them would be a cheap alternative to bringing in free agents to fill those slots or even re-signing some current players like Cedric Paquette, Anton Stralman, and Braydon Coburn. I should also mention here that Cory Conacher will still be in play as he is signed to a $700,000 contract for next season as well.
Looking more specifically at Gourde’s contract, this is a discounted deal for the Lightning, but also a deal that isn’t without precedent. Gourde is a definite late bloomer finding his groove in his mid-20s. His situation is similar to that of Jonathan Marchessault. Marchessault had two big seasons before signing a long-term contract with the Vegas Golden Knights. He put up 30 goals and 51 points for the Florida Panthers in 2016-17 and 27 goals and 75 points last season for the Vegas Golden Knights. He signed a six year contract with a cap hit of only $5 million per season.
A player in his prime that is scoring in the 60-70 point range, should generally be signing for north of $6.5 million, if not more. Especially as an unrestricted free agent. The difference here is that for both Marchessault and Gourde, they didn’t produce that way until just two seasons prior to being eligible for unrestricted free agency. Their lack of track record worked against them.
The other side of that, and the side that we can’t answer without getting into either player’s mind, is that it could simply be a decision to guarantee their financial security. Through the end of this season, Gourde will have earned less than $3 million in his career. With this contract, he is looking at $31 million coming into his bank account over the next six seasons. You can do a lot with that kind of money.
Whether it’s the player giving a discount, or market forces at play, as long as Gourde continues to be as effective a top-six forward for the Lightning as he has been over the past season plus of playing time... it’s most certainly a discount for the Lightning.