Tampa Bay Lightning: Curious case of Yanni Gourde and the scoring drought

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 09: Tampa Bay Lightning center Yanni Gourde (37) takes a backhand shot as he is pressured by Detroit Red Wings defender Danny DeKeyser (65) during the third period of an NHL game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 09, 2019 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - MARCH 09: Tampa Bay Lightning center Yanni Gourde (37) takes a backhand shot as he is pressured by Detroit Red Wings defender Danny DeKeyser (65) during the third period of an NHL game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 09, 2019 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Yanni Gourde is stuck in a scoring slump and far from having the season everyone in the Bolts Nation expected.

Simply put, Yanni Gourde is in a slump. The tenacious forward is in the midst of the longest goal-scoring drought of his career. He hasn’t scored since he tipped home a Ryan McDonagh slap shot 9 minutes and 26 seconds into the second period of a 5-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres way back on November 25. Since then, Gourde has only managed to record seven assists over a 35 game stretch. Prior to this stretch he had been enjoying one of the most productive runs of his career.

Gourde had netted ten points, including five goals, in the nine games directly preceding the start of his goal-scoring drought. However, Gourde’s production would evaporate almost overnight. He went from scoring ten points in nine games to only three points in the next eleven games at the onset of his drought and finally he has had just three points over the last 21 games.

35 games is quite the stretch. After all, Gourde hasn’t scored since before Thanksgiving, but hey at least it’s American Thanksgiving, not Canadian Thanksgiving. So why is it taking until just recently for the media and the fans to notice?

Surely Yanni has been painfully aware of his goal-scoring drought for a while now and I’m sure his teammates and the coaching staff have been aware of it for some time too. But the fans, who have at times been incredibly critical of the Lightning’s performance this season have been relatively quiet about the multi-time twenty goal scorers lack of lamp lighting this season.

Why is that?

A question that no doubt has a lot of different answers. To start, Lightning fans have had a lot more to follow than Yanni Gourde this season. Especially when Gourde’s scoring drought was just beginning.

On November 25 the Lightning was sitting outside of a playoff spot and it was apparent that the hangover from their record-setting 2018-2019 season was more than just a small bump to start the season and things were still getting worse. The Lightning would drop four of their next five games and slip all the way to 23rd place in the league by December 6th.

Less than two weeks later Nikita Kucherov would be benched during the third period of a close game against the Ottawa Senators. The Lightning would eventually win in overtime thanks to some individual heroics from Anthony Cirelli. However, the controversial call by Coach Jon Cooper to bench Kucherov would take the attention of the Lightning fan base. Questions about Kucherov’s on-ice effort and style of play developed into questions about the entire team.

Kucherov’s benching quickly became a microcosm of the entire Tampa Bay Lightning. Gifted offensively, highly talented, good on defense (most of the time), but with plenty of turnovers and days where the effort is clearly lacking. Fan frustration was running high and many were wondering if the team would be able to finally turn the corner on the season.

With all this going on Yanni Gourde was far from being a concern for many fans. At the time his scoring drought began he had actually been having a fairly good season. Gourde recorded six goals and 8 assists through the first 21 games before the scoring drought started. Putting him on pace for 23 goals and 54 points on the season. This would be directly in line with Gourde’s typical production levels through his first two full seasons in the NHL.

All this occurred while he was averaging just 14:43 a night, well over a minute below his career average time on ice, while playing the majority of the time on the fourth line with linemates more known for their physical play than their scoring touch.

However, Lightning fans will remember that the fourth line of Cedric Paquette, Yanni Gourde, and Pat Maroon was one of the most productive lines for the Lightning early in the year. Often the lone bright spot in on nights when the Lightning were turning in disappointing performances.

So why did things go wrong?

To answer this we can start by looking at Gourde’s usage during his goal-scoring drought compared to his usage prior to the drought.

Gourde is currently averaging 1:11 less in ice-time, about two shifts fewer, per game during his scoring drought. However, his slight reduction in ice-time is compounded by picking up an extra shift on the penalty kill and by dropping down to less than a single shift of power-play time a game. Not exactly ideal conditions for scoring. Certainly less ice-time isn’t going to help break a struggling forward out of a slump.

It seems that part of the slump can be attributed to Gourde being forced into a more defense-oriented role. A more traditional role for a fourth-line forward and something that matches well with Gourde’s style of play which involves heavy doses of back and fore-checking. However, it is unusual for a player in the midst of a scoring streak to have his playing time decreased.

Usually a player who is scoring is rewarded with more playing time, not less, but the Lightning are one of the most offensively stacked teams in the league and have a plethora of highly talented forwards. Moving Gourde up in the line-up would require moving someone else down. A move that would be hard for Head Coach Jon Cooper to justify. Especially, because Gourde is one of the best defensive forwards on the team.

Luck, more than usage may just be the biggest factor in Gourde’s lack of production. In hockey, shooting percentage is commonly used as a substitute for luck.  A player can get ‘lucky’ with a fortunate bounce, a mistake by the goaltender, or a defenseman falling down. All of which would be captured by a higher than average shooting percentage.

On the other hand, a lower than average shooting percentage means a player has been unlucky. Maybe the goaltender makes a miraculous save, or a bouncing puck sends a shot fluttering wide of the target. Over time we would expect the lucky and unlucky shots to balance each other. As a result, the shooting percentage would always trend towards the average.

Before the slump began, Gourde was scoring on 14.3 percent of his shots. Higher than league average, but down from his previous two seasons when he had a shooting percentage of 16.9 in 18-19 and 18.4 in 17-18. Still, it’s significantly higher than the goose egg he has posted in the last 33 games. If Gourde had been able to maintain a shooting percentage of 14.3 throughout this season, we could expect him to have recorded 13 goals so far this season. Just a hair below his career average goal-scoring pace.

We know Gourde won’t go scoreless forever. In fact, he had several near misses in the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday and, for a few moments, he had me reconsidering writing this article. Unfortunately, Gourde’s unlucky streak continued and I didn’t have to scrap this entire piece. However, it won’t continue forever. Statistics just won’t let that happen. He is bound to score at some point in the, hopefully, near future.

Now fans of advanced statistics will tell you there is a lot more that goes in shooting percentage than just ‘luck’. Which is true and a lot of smart hockey fans have been coming up with different ways to quantify that. One of those really smart people is Micah Blake McCurdy of hockeyviz.com who calculates the number of goals a player is expected to score based on figures like the number of shots and average shot distance. He has Gourde as one of the few Lightning players scoring less than he should. He predicts Gourde to have two additional goals this season. Eight goals isn’t as impressive as 13, but it is still better than six.

Despite his bad luck, Gourde has continue to contribute to the team in other ways. His underlying possession metrics remain strong. His Corsi For of 52.8 percent is a career-high (outside of his 20 game stint in 16-17), which supports the theory that he may just be exceptionally unlucky. After all puck possession is a huge part of the game and always will be. Being able to win the puck possession battle is critical for a players’ individual success in this league.

Gourde is also having a good year in the face-off circle. Gourde’s face-off win percentage of 55.7 is second on the team only behind Mitchell Stephens. A critical contribution in an area of the game the Lightning has struggled with the last few seasons.

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Until Gourde begins to falter with possession it will be hard to claim he is terrible player. Especially when he is playing on the fourth line in a defense-first role. It is only a matter of time before Gourde breaks through. More playing time will do him well, but it would be the quality of playing time that will make the most difference.