Yanni Gourde is one of the best players in the NHL.
Wait, let me take another run at this lede.
The way we evaluate players in the NHL is in flux. As analysts, we’re trying to figure out which metrics we should be using to understand which parts of a player’s game. Do points still matter? And if so, how much? Certainly less than we used to think but to what extent? What about play driving? Can we roll up a player’s contribution into a single metric like Wins Above Replacement (WAR)? If we’re looking for a a player to illustrate this struggle, Yanni Gourde is an ideal case study.
Nope, that one sucks too. One more try.
Yanni Gourde is hockey’s Rubik’s Cube. No matter how much you study him, he never aligns with expectations.
Ok, how about if I just say:
Yanni Gourde is a very good NHL player but determining how good is complicated because his statistical profile is weird, he took a long winding path to the NHL, and he doesn’t get the usage his production suggests he deserves.
Whew. Right, now that’s out of the way and we can get on with trying to figure out how good he is.
How good is Yanni Gourde?
Before we drown ourselves in uncertainty and analytical philosophy, let’s get the facts on the table. All data in this article is via Evolving Hockey unless otherwise noted. Over the two seasons prior to this one, Gourde has played mostly in the middle six. During that time, he’s 18th in WAR. Yes, 18th. Yes, among all NHL players. Yes, I’m absolutely sure. Among 347 forwards with at least 1000 minutes played, Gourde ranks 24th in points per 60 at 5v5. In terms of play driving, he ranks 61st among that same group in his even strength impact on expected goals according to regularized adjusted plus minus (RAPM).
The following plot visualizes his scoring and his impact on expected goals. He is in elite territory in terms of excelling in both areas.
So it should not be a surprise that a player who both produces individually at a high rate and makes his teammates better grades out well in WAR. Grading well in WAR without individual scoring is possible but the combination of scoring and play driving makes the results easy to interpret. The following chart shows where he sits in WAR over the last two seasons. Just look at the company he keeps on this list.
What makes him so good?
Gourde is a unique player on the Lightning roster. He’s one of the few players who excels at creating chaos in and around the net. In the previous two seasons, he was third on the team in terms of shot danger behind Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli. The Lightning rely heavily on snipes from Kucherov and Stamkos and haven’t traditionally done much around the net. Gourde is a departure from that.
The following plot shows Gourde’s average shot danger and his number of unblocked shots per 60 minutes of even strength ice time. This is a good illustration that his scoring is more about generating quality chances than taking lots of shots. Compare that to the other Lightning players highlighted on the plot and you can see how different he is from most of the rest of the top six forwards.
If I was in the mood to take a hard line stance, I could end the article here. He brings a skill set not many other Lightning forwards possess. He scores, he drives play, and he’s one of the best players in the NHL according to one of the best metrics we have available to evaluate players. That’s the profile of a great player who deserves top line usage. End of story. But I’m not in the mood to take a hard line stance today so let’s talk about context.
What about context?
Context is a hot button word in NHL player evaluation. When a player’s statistical profile doesn’t match the eye test, traditional analysts will point to context. He must be playing unusually easy or difficult minutes against worse or better opposition with better or worse teammates and getting more or less offensive zone starts. The preferred method of adjusting for context in the past has been to watch the games and subjectively adjust a player’s results in terms of points or plus minus to account for the degree of difficulty observed according to the observer’s mental model of how hockey works.
The stats we use today help us remove some of that subjectivity. Both WAR and RAPM mentioned above already account for all of the things mentioned in the previous paragraph. But let’s be clear what we mean by that. No, they don’t account for them perfectly. Information leaks between variables and players at the extremes in usage might not receive enough of a penalty or benefit for their usage. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trust them. Our mental models are also far from perfect and the last ten years of hockey analytics work have provided ample evidence that our mental models are often worse than the statistical ones.
The question then becomes how to deal with the uncertainty. One good rule took keep in mind with WAR is that players within a half of a win to maybe even a full win of each other over the course of a season can be thought of as playing fairly similarly. So, over two seasons, that would be one to two wins. If your eyes tell you that Gourde is overrated by WAR, then maybe it makes sense to compare him to players at the bottom end of his cohort. Even then though, we’re talking about top a 60 forward in the NHL putting him well within the range of a top liner. That’s a convenient number because it aligns well with his play driving according to RAPM as we saw above.
Why doesn’t Gourde play more?
If Gourde’s statistical profile indicates a clear top line player, why does he get so little ice time? Let’s dig into that. Over the previous two seasons, he’s sixth among Lightning forwards in ice time. So far this season, he’s eighth. Nominally, he’s currently on the fourth line but Saturday’s game against Winnipeg was the first time that would be an accurate description. In the previous two games, he was fifth and fourth among forwards in ice time respectively and was fifth again on Tuesday against the Blues.
To say that he’s a 4th liner right now is an exaggeration. Instead, his usage is fairly consistent with the minutes he’s received in previous seasons. He seems solidified as a middle six forward, which is understandable for a team with Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point as its top three forwards.
The question then becomes whether anyone after those three should be ahead of him in ice time. Based on his results over the last couple seasons, I would argue no. He should be at the front of the pack in the middle six. He’s surpassed Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn.
Over the course of last season, he did gradually rise to the top of the middle six crop in ice time finishing just barely ahead of Johnson in fourth behind the big three. If he continues to perform as he has over the last couple of years, I expect that the coaches will give him more minutes and we’ll see him eventually climb back up the depth chart. And if he gets back to where he was last year, he’ll be right where he belongs in a forward group this deep.
How is Gourde playing so far this season?
He’s not off to a hot start in terms of WAR but that’s mostly because of a low shooting percentage while he’s on the ice so far this season. His play driving is excellent and if he gets back to scoring the way he has in previous seasons, that number will jump right back up to where it usually is. The following chart is the same as the one we looked at earlier but is for this season.
As you can see, his play driving is even better than it has been in the past. What’s lagging is his scoring. Fluctuations in on ice shooting percentage over a small number of games are normal and the smart bet is for his scoring rate to move closer to previous seasons as this one progresses. And in fact, if we look at his scoring to this point in the season, we can see that he’s already picked up the pace after the slow start. The gray line is his actual points per 60 minutes of ice time and the blue line is the smoothed trend.
Yanni Gourde is a gem. No matter how you grade his performance, he looks like a lock top-six forward and probably deserving of a chance at consistent top line minutes if he was on a worse team than the Lightning. He has a unique skill set among Lightning forwards in that his offensive game is more about generating dangerous chances around the net than getting clean shots from the slot or faceoff circles.
He doesn’t typically get mentioned among the Lightning’s best forwards. In the media, he’s still overshadowed by Johnson, Palat, Killorn and others. But he shouldn’t be. He has the strongest case to be the team’s best forward outside of the big three and by the end of last season, he got the ice time to prove it.
Part of the reason he probably doesn’t get talked about in a way that aligns with his performance is because of his path to the NHL. As an undrafted player who had to take the long route through the CHL, ECHL, AHL, and eventually the NHL, people still think of him as a depth forward.
But he’s more than that. Since his first chance to play in the NHL while the Lightning were suffering from a slew of injuries during the spring of 2017, he’s played like he belongs on the top two lines. A small dip in his scoring rate through the first 10 or so games of this season is no reason to think that will change. At the end of the year, he’ll likely be back near the top of the WAR leaderboard for Lightning players.