TAMPA — Just three years ago, Yanni Gourde was fighting to stay in pro hockey.
Having been demoted from the AHL to ECHL, he took up civil engineering as a fallback.
That's what makes Gourde's two-year, one-way deal with the Lightning on Monday such a gratifying, meaningful moment for the undrafted, 5-foot-9 forward. Gourde, 25, who seized his moment with six goals in 20 games as a call-up last season, played his way into Tampa Bay's plans, getting $1 million a year.
"It's really special," Gourde said Monday. "Most people know my story, I've been to (the ECHL). At that point, it was pretty hard, and I wouldn't believe that I would ever get a one way like that when I was down in Kalamazoo (ECHL). But now this is happening. It feels amazing. I'm ready."
Gourde was an unrestricted free agent and received interest from some other teams when the window to court opened Sunday. But Gourde said his main focus was signing in Tampa, which signed him as a free agent three years ago.
Credit scout Jamie Pushor, who saw Gourde in the ECHL and pushed for him, emailing assistant GM Julien BriseBois: If you're looking for a player, "keep your eye on Yanni Gourde."
"It's great that they trusted the development, their system," Gourde said. "And I really appreciate what they've done for me," Gourde said.
Gourde nearly helped lift the Lightning into the playoffs last season, scoring clutch goals against Chicago, Florida and Montreal that resulted in five points in the standings. Gourde said it was the best hockey of his career, and it helped him gain confidence playing in all situations. Now he hopes to have a regular spot in the Lightning lineup. Gourde is the type of player who can play on any line.
"He's been a diamond in the rough down the stretch for us," coach Jon Cooper said.
GM Steve Yzerman had said he hoped to add one or two forwards to his top nine this summer, and Gourde is no doubt part of that.
"He had a fantastic season," Yzerman said of Gourde. "He's worked hard, he's improved every year in every aspect."
And it paid off.
The Lightning re-signed restricted free agent D Andrej Sustr to a one-year, $1.95 million deal.
Sustr, 26, said he'll use the short, show-me deal as motivation to prove he should stay longer, as he'll be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Sustr, who is approaching the 300-game milestone, hopes to take more of a leadership role with young defensemen like Mikhail Sergachev, Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek. "We have some guys in the same position I was a few years ago," Sustr said. "I'll do what I can to help those guys out."
Monday was the deadline to give qualifying offers to restricted free agents, and Tampa Bay qualified Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Koekkoek, Dotchin, Kristers Gudlevskis, Tye McGinn, Matthew Peca and Tanner Richard.
Though the Lightning showed interest in pending UFA D Kevin Shattenkirk during this five-day courting window, it wasn't among the early teams reaching out to other free agent D Karl Azner and Cody Franson.
The Lightning's development camp starts today at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon. The camp, which is free and open to the public, starts at 10:30 a.m. and goes until about 3:15 p.m. on Day 1. It runs through Saturday.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.