Lightning’s Yanni Gourde finding NHL success after a long road traveled

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If hockey hadn’t worked out for Tampa Bay Lightning forward Yanni Gourde, he would have found himself in the world of civil engineering.

“I like to understand how things work. I’m good at math, too, so it just interested me,” Gourde told Pro Hockey Talk on Friday.

There were plenty of times the thought of going to university passed through Gourde’s mind as he tried working his way up the hockey ladder to get a shot in the NHL. But the more he worked, the more he found himself going in the opposite direction.

Playing with the Victoriaville Tigres of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Gourde finished his junior career in 2011-12 with 37 goals and a league-best 124 points, three years after going undrafted. That wasn’t enough to garner any interest from NHL teams and once again he went undrafted. But it wasn’t like the St-Narcisse, Quebec native was concerned.

“I was never really seen as a prospect. In junior I never really looked at me having a chance to get drafted,” he said. “I just went on and played my junior career and tried to play the best way that I could and eventually get a tryout somewhere. It wasn’t my primary concern. I just wanted to play hockey, help my team win and try to go deep in playoffs.”

After playing parts of two seasons with the American Hockey League’s Worcester Sharks following a tryout, Gourde found himself down in the ECHL with the Kalamazoo Wings trying to figure out how to climb his way back up.

“My first year in pro hockey I really learned a lot about myself and how I was playing the game,” he said. “I was trying too much, trying too hard to make everything happen every single shift. When you realize that, you’ve got to slow things down and play the right way and go one shift at a time, play the right way every time you step on the ice. From that moment I just realized that was the better way to play on the pro level.”

As an undrafted, unknown player, you don’t get a long leash in professional hockey like most draft picks. For Gourde, all 5-foot-9 of him, it was easy for him to be overlooked and discarded by teams, and moving further and further away from the NHL had him thinking a breakthrough would never happen.

“I had doubt in my mind every single day since my first game… It’s tough to know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen,” he said. “As an undrafted [player], never seen as a prospect, it’s tough to really see yourself as an NHL player and see [yourself] as a regular player. I’m never going to take the chance I have right now for granted.”

Gourde played well in the ECHL to catch some eyes and in March 2014 he signed a contract with the Lightning and proceeded to lead their AHL affiliate in Syracuse in goals (29) and finish second in scoring behind Jonathan Marchessault with 57 points.

After following up that first AHL season with two more strong campaigns, injuries allowed the Lightning to give Gourde an extended look last season. He scored six times and recorded eight points in 20 games before going back to Syracuse and helping the Crunch during their run to the Calder Cup Final. He would finish second in AHL scoring with 27 postseason points and earn a two-year, $2 million extension.

That brief experience at the NHL level did wonders for Gourde’s confidence.

“It was huge. That’s where I knew from that moment that I could play in the NHL and from after that I just need to play my game and play the right way and go out there with the best effort every night and hopefully things are going to work out for me,” he said.

The contract was a nice feeling of security, but if Gourde’s journey taught him anything, it was that nothing is guaranteed. He understood that his spot on the Lightning wasn’t set in stone, and despite a new deal he could find himself once again moving in the wrong direction on hockey’s ladder.

While the Lightning are a much healthier team than a year ago, Gourde has carved out a spot as a regular in Jon Cooper’s lineup. His production — 22 goals, 43 points in 58 games — has entered his name in the long list of Calder Trophy candidates. While he’s eligible for the award at age 26 by three months, that’s not the trophy he’s thinking about receiving in June.

“To be honest, I don’t really think about [rookie of the year],” said Gourde, who’s fourth in rookie scoring. “Every day I’m coming to the rink, I go out on the ice and I want to get better. I don’t really look too much into stats and into what’s going on around in the league. I want to play my game. I want to be the best version of myself and try to get better. It’s flattering to be even just mentioned in those types of things but I just want to play good for my team and help my team win.”

Fine. Let his coach be his Calder hype man: ”Individual awards are garnered a ton because of the team’s success, and our team has had a lot of success, and Yanni Gourde has been a big part of it,” Cooper said earlier this month.

Gourde is just one of a number of Lightning players having outstanding seasons beyond the big names. Braydon Point and Vladislav Namestnikov have 39 goals combined and rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev has 30 points and is logging nearly 16 minutes a night.

The Lightning have the most points in the NHL (81) as of Friday and have positioned themselves as a Cup favorite in part because they aren’t being carried by just their top lines. Everyone is pitching in and the continued production of their depth will take this team far.

“All four lines are really good. Our top eight D are very good, too, and both of our goalies are excellent. It’s the depth of this organization and the way we come up together,” Gourde said. “We want to win games. We want to be dominant. We want to step on the ice and be the best team out there.

“It’s our mentality, how we approach games, and that’s been helping us win those games and trying to be consistent. We’re never satisfied, we always want [to be] better.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.