This is the story of Lightning’s Yanni Gourde, from pumpkin patch to Great Pumpkin of the NHL.

The story of Yanni Gourde’s journey to the Tampa Bay Lightning is one of the more uncommon ones. While it’s not that uncommon to go undrafted by an NHL team, most of the players that make it to the NHL rise through the NCAA to prove themselves. Many fewer come out of one of the CHL leagues, play in the ECHL, earn their way to the AHL, and eventually rise to the NHL. But that’s what Yanni Gourde has done.

Gourde’s 2016-17 season success was rewarded by the Lightning giving him a two-year, one-way contract worth $2 million. While the contract can be buried in the AHL without any cap penalties, it is all guaranteed money for Gourde. It was a worthwhile gamble for the Lightning and could prove to be a bargain for what Gourde can contribute.

He’s been given every change to succeed this year, playing second-line minutes next to Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat with a spot on the second power play unit. While Gourde has put up gaudy assist numbers at times in his career, he more often has been a goal scorer and less of a playmaker. He’s got a good enough shot to beat NHL goaltenders and with the playmaking skills of Palat and Point he’s in position to take advantage.

All of this has earned him international attention.

So how did he get there?

Victoriaville Tigres

At 17 years old, Gourde made his QMJHL debut for the Victoriaville Tigres, playing four games and recording an assist at the end of the 2008-09 season. He assumed a full-time position with the club for the 2009-10 season and tried to make an impression on NHL scouts with his draft year coming up the following summer. In 59 games, he was only able to score 11 goals and 28 points, and added another five points in 16 playoff games.

Combined with Gourde’s small stature, his lackluster offensive output was not enough to get attention from NHL teams. He followed it up the next season with a better performance, posting 26 goals and 68 points in 68 games, good for third on his team in points. However, that still was not enough of an impact from an age-19 player in the QMJHL, a league known for its offensive output.

In Gourde’s last year of junior eligibility in 2011-12, he put up a whopping 37 goals and 124 points on a team that featured two 40-goal scorers and five 30-goal scorers. He led the QMJHL in points that season. With Victoriaville being eliminated in the first round of the QMJHL play-offs, Gourde signed an amateur try-out contract with the Worcester Sharks of the AHL. In four games to close out the season he contributed a goal and three points.

Worcester Sharks, San Francisco Bulls, and K-Wings

The Sharks management thought enough of Gourde’s four game try-out to sign him to a one-year AHL deal. Unfortunately, Gourde couldn’t keep up the production and in 54 games with Worcester, he only managed eight goals and 14 points while being a minus-11 in 54 games. He also spent eight games in the ECHL with the San Francisco Bulls, posting four goals and 10 points in eight games.

Following Gourde’s lackluster rookie season in the AHL, the Sharks declined to re-sign him. He accepted a contract with the Kalamazoo Wings and played 30 games for them, posting 15 goals and 34 points in the ECHL. With a need for a forward, the Kalamazoo Wings loaned him to Worcester Sharks, who signed him to a professional try-out contract. This PTO allowed them to keep him for 25 games and then either sign him to another PTO, sign him to an AHL contract, or return him to Kalamazoo. He played in 25 games and posted four goals and 20 assists in 25 games, a very impressive showing.

Syracuse Crunch

With his PTO up, the Sharks did not re-sign him. The Lightning jumped in and picked him up because the Lightning’s scouts had seen enough from him with Worcester. He signed an AHL contract for the remainder of the 2013-14 season and a two-year entry level contract slated to begin in the 2014-15 season.

Gourde’s transition to the Syracuse Crunch took a little time. He only put up two goals and eight points in 18 games over the remainder of the 2014-15 season, but 2014-15 saw him become a big contributor for the Lightning’s AHL affiliate. He put up a 29 goal, 57 point season and was the Crunch’s leading goal scorer and second in points.

The season after that, 2015-16, was a little bit of a backslide for Gourde, and his goal total dropped to 14 goals and 44 points. However, he did get the opportunity to make his NHL debut, playing in two games for the Tampa Bay Lightning and recording one assist. Just two years after only one contract offer from the ECHL, he was playing in the NHL.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The injury-riddled Lightning of 2016-17 were forced to turn to the AHL to fill some of the holes up front, left from the trades of Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle as well as the season-ending injuries for Tyler Johnson, Cedric Paquette, Steven Stamkos, and Ryan Callahan.

Gourde made the most of his opportunity, scoring six goals. And they were, for the most part, big goals.

Gourde’s first goal came at home against Florida on the penalty kill. He stole the puck and flew down the ice to put the puck past James Reimer to tie the game at 2-2. The Lightning went on to win in the third period on an Ondrej Palat goal.

Gourde’s second goal was even more special. The Lightning were playing the Chicago Blackhawks at home. The Lightning had come back from a 4-1 deficit to tie the game up in the second period. With no scoring in the third period, the game went to overtime. Gourde took the poke after a Victor Hedman poke check and showed off his shot, beating Scott Darling cleanly glove side.

Gourde’s third goal of the season ended up being an insurance goal in the third period of a 5-3 win against the Detroit Red Wings. His fourth goal was the Lightning’s only goal in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens. The goal did get the Lightning to overtime, though, and secured them a point as well as giving him a three-game goal-scoring streak.

His last two goals came in the second to last game of the season with the team’s season on the line against Montreal. His first goal of the game opened up the scoring in the first period, and his second goal was an insurance goal in the third period to give the Lightning the final margin of 4-2 over the Canadiens.

The Great Pumpkin

Gourde’s game has taken a little bit of time to really get going in 2017-18, with his four goals coming over the last seven games after being goal-less in the first eight. The theatrics of his goals haven’t been quite as big this season, but he has had a couple of important goals.

His first two came in big offensive games against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Florida Panthers. But his goals in the past two games have had a higher impact. Both of his goals ended up being the last goals scored by the Lightning in regulation to force overtime. One ended in a Lightning loss in overtime and the other led to a shootout victory.

I’m not going to sit here and say he’ll be a 30+ goal scorer, but contributing 20 goals and 20 assists wouldn’t be out of line and would be a bargain for the Lightning at his $1 million cap hit. If he keeps up his scoring pace from the first 15 games, then he’d score 21 goals and 27 assists.

Scoring earlier in the year tends to be easier, and I think his scoring pace could slow down. Any way you want to slice it though, a half-point-per-game pace would be an impressive outcome for a player that just a few years ago was struggling just to make it to the AHL, much less sniffing the NHL.

(Oh, by the way, if you’ve made it this far and are still wondering about the title… gourds and pumpkins are related. Some of the Syracuse Crunch people, including our own Allokago, are fond of giving players nicknames. Gourde has often been referred to as Pumpkin by fans, though his teammates prefer to call him “Gourde-o.”)


Article first appeared on www.draysbay.com