Gourde Finds Home in Lightning Organization

By Jeremy Houghtaling

Yanni Gourde took the ice Tuesday as determined as ever.

The 5-9 left-winger signed a new deal -- an American Hockey League contract with the Syracuse Crunch for the rest of this season and a two-way deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning over the next two years -- last weekend. But Gourde, who spent time with three teams over the past two years, isn’t completely satisfied with his new found stability.

"It's awesome to feel that type of security right now," Gourde said. "But hockey is day-by-day. Every practice is important, and every time I step on the ice I need to improve myself to get better."

After briefly meeting some of his new teammates, Gourde slipped on a Crunch sweater for the first time for a short practice at the Onondaga County War Memorial Tuesday. Only a handful of players skated, while some others filtered in and out of the stands.

"I'll reserve judgment until I see him," said Crunch coach Rob Zettler as he watched Gourde skate. "I think what you'll see, obviously, is he's a smaller player -- quick, has good hands, and good decision making offensively."

One year after registering 78 points in 77 games, Gourde broke out for 127 points -- 38 goals and 89 assists -- in 71 games with Victoriaville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League during the 2011-12 season. His incredible stats earned him a nomination for the Michel-Briere trophy, which is awarded to the league’s most valuable player.

Gourde, a speedy pass-first type player that can chip in goals, also has some sandpaper in his game.

"I'm a little fly, but I like to be in the other team's face all game long," the 22-year-old said. "I like to make sure they know who I am when I'm on the ice."

Despite his impressive stats in junior, Gourde went undrafted.

"I guess my size didn't help, for sure," he said. "But I wasn't worried about that. I just wanted to play hockey, and I wasn't concerned about not being drafted."

After junior, Gourde bounced around between the ECHL and the American Hockey League.

The Quebec native registered 24 points in 25 games with the AHL Worcester this season, but decided to take the offer from the Tampa Bay Lightning once his professional tryout with the Sharks expired.

"It's awesome to come here and they seem happy to have me," Gourde said. "I'm so happy to be here also. It's a good fit."

The Lightning organization has had previous success with undersized forwards. Tyler Johnson was named the AHL MVP last year, and Cory Conacher earned the award the year before.

"You just try to follow those guys," Gourde said. "Those guys are really good players, and obviously, it's good to know the organization is pushing forward to help those guys move up."

Gourde, who played with other Tampa Bay prospects Philip-Michael Devos and Dan Milan in junior, spends his summers working out with new teammate Jonathan Marchessault, another small forward who was dealt to the Crunch in a deadline deal last week.

"They look, first and foremost, for talent, character, and bottom line: can you get the job done?" Zettler said of the Lightning organization acquiring smaller players. "The people they've brought in certainly have done all of the above."

Although his new deal gives him more of an idea of where he is likely to play for the next few years, Gourde isn’t taking his opportunity for granted.

"We never know what's going to happen," he said. "So I need to focus on my game right now to stay here, get some good ice time, and after that, we'll see what happens."