How Yanni Gourde’s injury will affect Seattle’s start

by Dan Morse

It’s easy to ignore it right now, but when the Seattle Kraken take the ice for their first game on October 12th, they’ll be without one of their most important skaters. Yanni Gourde, the center selected in the expansion draft from the Tampa Bay Lightning, had shoulder surgery the week prior to the draft and isn’t expected to make his Kraken debut until as late as December.

It’s difficult to know how big this loss is, as we haven’t even seen the team on the ice together yet. There are so many other new faces to get excited about that Gourde’s absence might not really be felt until he makes his return, as odd as that sounds. But losing what most considered to be one of Seattle’s top-six forwards for the first month of the season is a significant setback for a team that projects to compete for a playoff spot in a weak Pacific division.

Ron Francis and the Kraken clearly think very highly of Gourde and believe him to be an integral part of the team going forward. In fact, on expansion day, Gourde’s contract was the highest commitment made by the team to any single forward in terms of total contract dollars—and the second highest commitment overall.

A bar chart highlighting Yanni Gourde as the second-highest salary commitment by the Kraken at the expansion draft

What Seattle is losing

Before analyzing who will take Gourde’s place in the lineup for the first quarter of the season, let’s take a peek at what Gourde himself will (eventually) bring to the table.

Gourde was frequently referred to as Tampa Bay’s third-line center last year, but that’s not really a good moniker for how he was used. It’s more due to the fact that the Lightning also rostered Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, and Steven Stamkos (who played on the wing more often but is still listed as a center), all of whom are star centermen that Tampa Bay protected over Gourde in the expansion draft. However, among Lightning forwards, Gourde actually played the fifth-most minutes per game at 5-on-5 last season. Yes, all of Point, Cirelli, and Stamkos played more, but that doesn’t change the fact that Gourde was a top-six player in Tampa Bay.

If there was any question whether he could handle a top-six role, he’s already answered them. Not only did he get those minutes, he thrived in them. Gourde spent the majority of his ice time last year with Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman. In their 402 minutes together at 5-on-5, the Lightning controlled 59% of the unblocked shot attempts per game and outscored their opponents by a 2:1 ratio, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The real question now is how those three manage now that they’ve been separated. Goodrow and Coleman recently signed six-year deals with the New York Rangers and Calgary Flames, respectively. Neither received quite the salary that Gourde’s contract pays him, indicating that the league likely agrees with the thought that Gourde was the main play driver on that line.

Gourde is also the type of player that provides value on both areas of special teams play. He was one of three Lightning players to average at least a minute on the ice on both the power play and penalty kill units per game last year (Cirelli, Alex Killorn).

Gourde was one of the best penalty killers on Tampa Bay’s roster last year. The Lightning allowed fewer shots, goals, and expected goals per minute with Gourde on the ice than any other player on the team while shorthanded (per Evolving Hockey).

His power play stats weren’t as impressive, especially compared to the lethal first unit, but he did lead the second power play line in points with 6.

Who could fill in?

With Gourde providing value in so many facets of the game, who will Seattle look to to fill in for the first 20 or so games of the year?

One choice to jump in and center the second-line (or first, if that’s where you envision Gourde) is Jared McCann. McCann stepped in for an injured Evgeni Malkin on the Penguins’ top power play unit last year and within about two weeks had already notched 5 goals with the man advantage. If we assume McCann would initially be on the second power play unit, it’s easy to see him as Gourde’s replacement on the top-unit to start the year.

McCann also enjoyed a career year at 5-on-5 as well last season, finishing 8th in the NHL in primary assists per 60 minutes, just a shade behind Vegas’ Mark Stone (Evolving Hockey).

The issue with this solution is that, while McCann could move up from the third to the second line in Pittsburgh, he’s likely already going to be on the second line in Seattle. Most projections (like this one) have McCann as the second-line winger. So while it’s certainly possible he slides over to center in Gourde’s absence, that still leaves a hole in the top-six forwards that needs filling.

One name that has some top-six experience is Calle Järnkrok. Järnkrok has spent the majority of his seven full seasons in a middle-six forward role, but got a chance to play some top-line minutes on a struggling Nashville team last season. Like Gourde, he provides great defense at both 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill. He’s also got a great shot, boasting a career shooting percentage of 11.7%—nearly identical to players such as Evgeny Kuznetsov and Max Pacioretty. Järnkrok could potentially be the guy that takes an expanded opportunity in Seattle and runs away with it a la William Karlsson in 2017.

There’s still two months until the Kraken take the ice for their first ever regular season game, but it’s not too early to see the potential impact of an injury to a key player. Yanni Gourde is expected to be a core forward for years to come in Seattle, but they’ll have to explore some alternatives when the franchise begins its quest to bring a Stanley Cup back to Seattle.

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