Few realized as incoming Kraken center Yanni Gourde was slamming and crashing his way to another Stanley Cup championship this summer that the pain in his left shoulder had grown too big to ignore.
The 5-foot-9, 173-pound sparkplug had done his best the past two seasons to conceal the throbbing aches beneath an onslaught of hard-fought goals as his Tampa Bay Lightning captured a pair of titles. But by the time Quebec native Gourde and teammates were done with their second consecutive celebratory boat parade up Tampa’s Hillsborough River, he needed a surgeon’s help to play another shift.
“It’s been bugging me for over 18 months,’’ Gourde, 29, one of the more prominent players selected by the Kraken in last month’s expansion draft, said this week. “There’s a lot of stuff in that shoulder that didn’t work right and everything was caused by a labrum tear.’’
That comment, by a player whose relentless style typifies what the Kraken aspires to become, captured both the risk and potential upside the team foresaw in selecting Gourde within days of his surgery. Kraken general manager Ron Francis knew Gourde would be sidelined roughly four months and probably need until December to look anything like the havoc-wreaking third-line center who scored 17 goals in a pandemic-shortened 56-game regular season, then six more in 23 playoff contests.
But Francis also knew Gourde’s 23 combined goals over that 79-game stretch — equating almost exactly to a non-pandemic NHL regular-season schedule — was achieved under physical duress. And that, in healthier times, the onetime junior league scoring champion managed 25 goals as a Lightning rookie in 2017-18, making it easy to envision similar returns playing within the Kraken’s top two lines — perhaps to where Gourde even becomes that missing 30-goal man on a roster lacking proven elite scorers.
Gourde wants to avoid putting “too much pressure on myself’’ but is admittedly excited about the increased opportunity after four seasons with a star-studded Lightning squad offering few openings beyond its bottom two lines. Years back, he’d seen good friend Jonathan Marchessault go from fringe Lightning forward to a 30-goal scorer with Florida, then a bona fide star with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
“It’s pretty nice to know that a team wants you that bad when there were a lot of very talented people that were left unprotected,’’ Gourde said of the Kraken.
For all the concerns about the Kraken’s lack of elite scoring, it has quietly assembled a collection of potential 20-goal scorers that could rival most playoff teams. There’s an argument the roster contains as many as nine potential 20-goal men between Gourde, Jordan Eberle, Alex Wennberg, Jaden Schwartz, Joonas Donskoi, Calle Jarnkrok, Jared McCann, Colin Blackwell and Mason Appleton.
Not all will get there, of course, and Gourde already missing a month or two makes his hitting that target more difficult. While the Kraken hopes a healthy Schwartz bounces back after an oblique injury last season and that Wennberg, Appleton and Blackwell progress with added responsibilities, regression is also possible, even likely, for some players.
The last NHL team with nine 20-goal scorers was the 1992-93 Washington Capitals, and hockey has changed plenty since. Better goaltending, greater competitive balance, fewer power-plays and more blocked shots have helped make a 20-goal season as tough as 30 once was to reach.
Thus, if the Kraken manages even four or five 20-goal scorers, the offense would have a solid foundation to compete for a playoff spot.
In 2018-19, the last full NHL season not altered by COVID-19, only two of 16 playoff teams had more than five 20-goal scorers. Toronto and Washington had seven apiece, while seven teams had five, three had four and four squads had just three 20-goal men.
A big thing appearing to separate those playoff clubs from the Kraken is all but two — Vegas and the New York Islanders — had at least one elite 30-goal man to ignite the offense. Nine of the playoff teams had at least one 35-goal-scorer, while five had a 40-goal man.
For now, though, while the Kraken seeks additional offense with about $16 million in salary cap space, it may already have as many 20-goal men as the NHL’s better teams. After all, Gourde, Eberle and Donskoi just tallied 20 or more actual goals this past campaign over a span of matchups, including playoffs, amounting to less than the usual 82-game regular season slate.
Wennberg scored 17 with Florida in the shortened regular season and another in the playoffs and it’s hoped he’ll show upside in an expanded “top-six’’ forward role. And Schwartz already has four 20-goal campaigns, most recently two seasons ago when he notched 22 with St. Louis.
Jarnkrok, Blackwell, McCann and Appleton were all just over or slightly under a 20-goal pace during the reduced 56-game schedule. And while that won’t automatically translate to an actual 20-goal season now — the grind of 82 games potentially slowing that scoring pace — it’s possible one or more gets there.
The most famous NHL team to ride a wave of 20-goal men was the 1977-78 Boston Bruins, boasting a record 11 such players. Peter McNabb had a team-high 44 goals, but no one else reached 30 as coach Don Cherry’s “Lunch Pail Gang” of hardworking, dump-and-chase specialists took the dynastic Montreal Canadiens to six games in the Cup final before bowing out.
These days, successful NHL playoff teams work just as relentlessly as Cherry’s did. The Kraken is heavily focused on getting two-way defensive play and high-energy forechecking out of its forwards as it waits to see whether a more elite-level scorer emerges on the open market or within the group.
“They’re real good two-way players,” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said of his forwards group. “They’re responsible with and without the puck. But there’s skill and ability there and that all comes out with how hard they play.”
Gourde actually led the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in scoring his final season with Victoriaville. But undersized, he went undrafted by NHL teams and battled for years in the minors before his high-energy, disruptive style caught on with the Lightning.
“There were definitely setbacks, times when it was harder than others,’’ Gourde said. “But I kept battling and I kept pushing. I wanted more all the time.’’
When Gourde finally does get back on the ice, the Kraken will see just how much more he can give them than he’s already produced. And whether the gap between this team and playoff-level offenses might actually be smaller than some think.