Yanni Gourde’s breakout season further complicates the Lightning’s cap situation

The Tampa Bay Lightning may have to let the offensively dynamic late-blooming forward test unrestricted free agency next July.

Prior to last season, Yanni Gourde had just 22 NHL games to his name, along with an unassuming 9 points in his entire NHL career. He began to establish himself after a mid-season call-up when Tampa Bay was decimated by injuries in 2016-17. In his two-month stint with the Lightning that season, Gourde demonstrated flashes of his offensive instincts and recorded the first six goals of his career.

Those six goals couldn’t have prepared anyone for the offensive onslaught he was about to unleash the following season. Gourde played all 82 games in the regular season and set career highs in every major stat category. His 64 points as a rookie (25 goals, 39 assists) were fourth-best on the Lightning roster behind Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point, despite averaging less minutes a game. Gourde had four multi-goal games last season, two of them against the New York Islanders. He scored 5 game-winning goals and 48 of his 64 points were primary points.

Gourde’s offense dropped in the playoffs, but so did his ice-time. Where he was playing over 16 minutes a game in the regular season, he only saw about 14 minutes a game in the playoffs, and his production took a hit. Though he did have four points against the Boston Bruins, he only scored twice in 17 games. Gourde finished with 7 points in the playoffs, which isn’t too worrisome considering his fallen ice-time and increased defensive zone starts.

Similar Seasons

William Nylander and William Karlsson had similar seasons to Gourde in terms of point production, shot metrics, and luck. All three players dressed for 82 games last season, and, just like Gourde, Karlsson was a relatively unknown player who had a monster season.

Yanni Gourde Season Comparables

Yanni Gourde253964482.661.9652.9553.02106.02
William Nylander204161482.351.7650.9954.41106.06
William Karlsson433578572.541.7853.7554.04105.43

All three players had their offensively dominant seasons backed by strong possession numbers, but they were also all extremely lucky. Of the highest PDO totals recorded last season, the three of them were the only players to have such high PDO and maintain it for all 82 games.

Both Nylander and Karlsson were restricted free agents following the end of last season. The Toronto Maple Leafs have yet to announce a contract extension for Nylander, but Karlsson was arbitration-eligible and was one of 44 players to file for arbitration in mid-July. He and the Vegas Golden Knights came to a new, 1-year contract worth $5.25 million just prior to his hearing on August 4th.

Unfortunately, the difference here is that Gourde will be an unrestricted free agent in July. Instead of the NHL team controlling the contract discussions, he holds all the cards. And it’s possible, maybe even likely, that he’ll receive larger offers from other teams than the Lightning will be able to match. With so many pending free agents next summer, the Bolts could be in a tough spot if they end up in a bidding war for Gourde.

Free Agent Abundance

Gourde will be heading into this season on the last year of a 2-year, $1-million AAV contract. Given his performance last season, this contract is an absolute steal for the Tampa Bay Lightning, especially since they have so many players locked up to expensive, long-term contracts.

Unfortunately for Steve Yzerman, he has several decisions to make. There are a plethora of players who have contracts coming up at the end of this season, including Gourde (UFA) and Brayden Point (RFA). Depending on how both players perform this season, the Lightning could find themselves in a position where they can only afford to keep one. And despite Gourde’s coming-out party last season, there shouldn’t be a debate between which player Tampa Bay should keep if it comes to that.

Obviously, the best-case scenario would be if Yzerman can keep both of them. But with so many of those aforementioned expensive contracts (many of which involve NMCs and NTCs), it would probably take a below-market contract to keep Gourde with the Lightning. He would likely have a chance make more with another team who isn’t as cap-strapped as Tampa Bay. Yzerman has proven in the past that he can extend pivotal players to discounted contracts (see: Stamkos and Hedman).

Gourde and Point aside, the Lightning have an additional nine players (five UFAs and four RFAs) coming off the books next season. There are also nine pending free agents on the Syracuse Crunch, assuming none of them make the jump to the NHL next season. The Tampa Bay Lightning roster could look very different by the time the 2019-2020 season arrives.

One More Season

So, what would it take to keep Gourde in Tampa Bay? If Yzerman doesn’t or can’t move contracts like Ryan Callahan’s or Alex Killorn’s (which would be difficult seeing as Callahan has a NMC and both have NTCs), probably a contract with a cap hit around $5 million. But even that amount could be difficult to fit under the Lightning’s cap depending on which free agents they retain. The Lightning could probably get solid assets for Gourde at the trade deadline, but unless he’s having a terrible season, Gourde will be kept for the playoffs.

Gourde had the kind of season that only comes around once or twice in a player’s NHL career. He’ll be hard-pressed to repeat the numbers he put up last season. Gourde’s 106.02 PDO was boosted by an extremely high 18.4% shooting percentage (15.8% at even strength). It was a miracle he was able to maintain that over the duration of 82 games. His shooting percentage will undoubtedly come down next season, which will likely bring Gourde’s point totals down as well.

Regardless how Gourde performs next season, his time as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning could be coming to an end. Although the Lightning’s lineup has remained mostly unchanged this off-season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gourde’s offensive production fall this season. As he will be an unrestricted free agent in July, his performance this season is pivotal. Either a lack of similar production will allow the Lightning to fit Gourde under their already tight cap and resign him at a significant discount, or another strong season will exacerbate the already difficult situation facing Yzerman and the Lightning next summer.

All statistics were found on Corsica Hockey, Hockey Reference, and Natural Stat Trick.