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Yanni Gourde and the conundrum of late-blooming stars

Earlier this month, the Tampa Bay Lightning signed forward Yanni Gourde to a six-year extension worth an average of $5.1 million annually for a total of $31 million over the length of the contract. Gourde’s atypical development path makes this interesting.

The Story

As has been covered extensively, Gourde was undrafted out of the QMJHL. Getting overlooked as a point-per-game player in his draft year is understandable. But 124 points in his overage season probably should’ve caught someone’s attention. Instead he bounced around the AHL and ECHL for a year before putting up 34 points in 30 games in Kalamazoo and earning an opportunity with the Lightning organization in Syracuse.

From there, Gourde became a key player for the Crunch, scoring 57 points in 76 games, 44 points in 65 games, and 48 points in 56 games. That 48 point campaign in 2016-2017 was the end of his AHL career. He joined the Lightning in the spring of 2017 and scored 8 points including 6 goals in his first 20 NHL games. The Lightning missed the playoffs that year, but Gourde made the team out of camp in the fall of 2017 and has been a key player for the last two seasons.

Gourde’s story is well documented. But what often gets overlooked is just how good he’s been since his promotion to the NHL. He’s not just a fun story. He’s a great player.

How good is Gourde’s play?

Before we go any further, let’s talk about just how well Gourde has played. Over the last two seasons, Yanni Gourde ranks 7th among all NHL skaters in WAR via Evolving-Hockey. Corsica hasn’t released WAR data for this year yet but he was in the top 50 last year. Gourde is 12th in even-strength scoring rate over the last two seasons. He’s 25th in game score over the last two seasons. Keep in mind, these numbers are among ALL NHL SKATERS.

Using Micah Blake McCurdy’s Threat model at HockeyViz, Gourde is a contributor at both ends of the ice. This chart includes his results from his first two seasons.

The most important part to pay attention to here is his “isolated” impact heatmaps. He makes the team more than ten percent better on offense and more than five percent better on defense. Any number in the double digits here is excellent and Gourde’s total impact is well over fifteen percent. Again, this is more than just a good player. These are outstanding impacts.

If we’re looking for reasons to be conservative about our confidence in the results Gourde has posted thus far, his shooting percentage is the obvious place to go. He’s shooting just under 15% over the last two seasons and it seems unlikely he’ll sustain that over a larger sample. But he shot over 15% in his three seasons in Syracuse so that suggests that when a correction does come, it won’t be so severe that it erases a significant amount of his value.

Yanni Gourde is a first-line forward in the NHL. He scores. He drives play. He can play in all situations. So why then were the Lightning able to sign him for about $5 million per season?

The Contract

The primary reason that Gourde’s value was suppressed in this contract is that he plays for the Lightning. On other teams, he likely would have secured a top-six role and maybe even become a regular on the top line. In Tampa, he has lots of good players to climb over to get those minutes. Because of that, he played mostly on the third line last year and didn’t get enough minutes to rack up the counting stats that factor heavily into contract negotiations.

He’s gotten that opportunity early this season because of his play and an injury to Ondrej Palat. All he’s done so far is score a point per game, powering the Lightning’s second line as part of a dynamic duo with Brayden Point. Those early returns could be part of what propelled General Manager Julien Brisebois to try to get this deal done now.

The other factor that almost certainly played a role in the affordability of the contract is Gourde’s lack of pedigree. Similar to Jonathan Marchessault’s contract in Vegas, the total dollar amount of this contract is likely lower that it could have been because Gourde was undrafted and didn’t earn a full time spot in the NHL until he was 25 years old.

If we graft the resume listed above on to a former first round pick, people would laugh at the idea of that player signing the deal Gourde signed. But because Gourde hasn’t had the opportunity that a first-round pick would have had, he doesn’t have the track record to show that he can sustain this performance over more than a season and a half.

From Gourde’s perspective, this likely was a chance to grab financial security that seemed impossible just a few years ago. For a player who spent so much time in the minor leagues, $31 million guaranteed is life-changing money. Acknowledging that, I wonder how he’ll feel about this deal if he puts up 70+ points this season. He would have been an unrestricted free agent next summer and if his season continues on its current trajectory, he might have been one of the top forward options for teams to consider. He could be leaving a sizable chunk of money on the table by signing now.

To get an idea of what he might have been worth in free agency, below is a plot that shows unrestricted free agents since 2011 according to Sportrac. I’ve only included those who were younger than thirty and with at least one WAR in their season prior to free agency. I added Gourde as a hypothetical using last season’s results and the extension he signed last summer.

Very few players get to free agency playing as well as Gourde has so far in his short NHL career because their current teams make re-signing them a priority. That was the case here as the Lightning didn’t risk letting him test the open market. If he had become a free agent after matching his play from last season, that would have been the second best season in the data set for a player entering the market. Looking at his place on this chart, it appears he would have had a chance at a larger contract had he waited until next summer.

The bigger picture

For the Lightning, Gourde represents an important case study in how teams in this stage of their competitive cycle can find advantages. Teams that make deep playoff runs over multiple seasons typically end up with less draft capital both because they pick lower in the draft and they frequently trade those picks for short term reinforcements.

Finding players outside the draft is one way that good teams can continue to improve. The Lightning have made a habit of this. Gourde, Jonathan Marchessault, and Alex Barré-Boulet all fit this description. Gourde is the only success of the three with the team ultimately failing to re-sign Marchessault and Barré-Boulet’s story still to be told.

This isn’t a new approach. In fact, one example of a player who followed this path is going into the Hall of Fame tonight. During his press conference this weekend, Marty St. Louis talked about some of the similarities he sees between himself and Gourde.

“I can see some, in terms of path and resemblance. I look at his game, I’ve watched him play. Not drafted, played in the American league and then when he came up to the NHL he was a ‘high energy guy’ and now he’s more than that. Now he plays with energy, but now he’s more than that. Now he makes plays, now he scores goals. I feel like there’s definitely some similarity there in how he plays the game and step-by-step where he is today.

Taking swings on players like this is important not only because it adds another good player to the lineup. But for all the reasons described above, they also cost less long term. Even Marchessault who was playing top line minutes when he signed his contract got an almost identical deal to Gourde. The confluence of circumstances in the NHL contract marketplace and the life situations of the players conspire to keep their salaries suppressed and therefore, make them extra appealing to good teams in a hard cap system.

Extending Yanni Gourde was key for the Lightning. He should be viewed as one of the core pieces on the roster. If the cap becomes so constricting that the team has to move a forward, it shouldn’t be him. A buyout of Ryan Callahan and even a trade of JT Miller should be preferred options. If Gourde continues to play the way he has, he will be one of the best value contracts on the cap sheet for the next few seasons.

The last sentence in the previous paragraph could also be reworded to say, “If Gourde continues to play the way he has, he will be one of the most underpaid players on the team.” The Lightning have made an early bet that Gourde will continue to be who he’s been to this point in his career. Gourde has rewarded that showing of faith by opting for long term security in a comfortable environment instead of pursuing his full earning potential on the open market.

Lessons learned?

Ideally, things like draft pedigree wouldn’t factor so heavily into the compensation of players eight years removed from their draft season. But the repercussions of that misstep in player evaluation by all 30 (and now 31) teams in the league is at the root of a player who is already playing like a top line forward and might emerge as more than that over the next few months signing such an affordable contract compared to his peers.

Those repercussions include not only the impact on the the player’s opportunity to prove that he deserves larger contract but also the impact on the player’s perception of himself and his willingness to forego a lot of money now for a chance at even more money eight months from now.

Maybe the next player to emerge from years of scouts and coaches failing to identify their talent will break this trend by playing all the way through to unrestricted free agency and seeing what the market will pay when confronted with a late-blooming star. The two most recent cases, Marchessault and Gourde, both instead chose long term security in what appear to be good situations. And no one would criticize them for doing so.

As long as this dynamic remains intact, late-blooming stars will continue to be one of the best ways for teams to play above the ceiling that a hard cap theoretically imposes. Teams with contract slots available should be taking swings whenever they identify players who fit this profile.

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