How Lightning’s Mikey Eyssimont has embraced the role of pest

TAMPA — The Lightning’s introduction to Mikey Eyssimont came a good three weeks before the team acquired him in a pre-deadline trade with the Sharks last season. He was wearing a San Jose uniform, skating against Tampa Bay’s top line Feb. 7 at Amalie Arena, when he decided to become a thorn in Brayden Point’s side.

Point had scored two goals in the game when he spun around with the puck in front of the Sharks bench late in the second period. Eyssimont closed in and twirled Point around, hooking his right arm with the Lightning center’s, then leaning on Point’s back and pushing his head down with his left glove.

It was enough to draw the ire of Point, a capable fighter who picks his spots wisely. Point grabbed Eyssimont with both hands and pinned him against the bench before dropping his gloves in what Point now describes as “a spur-of-the-moment thing.”

Point probably was the victor, but Eyssimont got his job done, taking one of the Lightning’s top players off the ice for five minutes. And it provided a glimpse of the gritty game Eyssimont now employs for Tampa Bay.

“You get a chance against the top line, you do your job, and if one of them wants to fight, you definitely don’t have a choice,” Eyssimont said. “I don’t remember who asked who, but I wasn’t going to skate away. I thought there was no other option.

“It was a relaxing five minutes in the penalty box for me. Probably not as much for him, because he wanted to be on the ice. But I’ll take him off the ice any day because he’s such a great player.”

Now their stalls are next to one another in the Lightning home locker room, and Eyssimont — signed to a two-year contract extension in May — has become an important part of the retooled roster.

“He works so hard,” Point said. “And his engine is insane. He’s always going — practice, games, it doesn’t matter. He plays the game hard, he finishes his checks, he’s hard on his stick, he makes life difficult for the other team. And I think this year has been no different, and he’s been doing that. His compete level is just so high.”

Shortly after Eyssimont, 27, arrived in a March 1 trade for forward Vladislav Namestnikov, he was drawing comparisons to former Lightning spark plug Yanni Gourde, a fan favorite with an Energizer Bunny motor who perfected the art of being a pest.

“When it’s helping your team win, that’s what makes it fun for me,” Eyssimont said. “I just have to realize that this is my game and find a way to love it every game, because that’s what my team needs and I want to do anything to help the team win.

“I enjoy being a pest. I enjoy being gritty. I just don’t feel like myself when I’m not playing that way.”

The Lightning were Eyssimont’s third franchise of the 2022-23 season, but he was the kind of player general manager Julien BriseBois was looking for: a hard forechecker who could help protect leads and make the team tougher to play against.

Eyssimont, who takes little time off in the offseason, kept working. He played for the United States at the world championships in May in Finland and Latvia, then worked to get bigger and stronger before being back on the ice in July.

“I love what he did over the summer,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He really worked his tail off to become a better player.

“He’s got that no-quit in him, and he’s a thorn in the other team’s side, and he’s just always wearing on you. I wasn’t sure he could keep that up, but clearly that is in his DNA, and that’s a good trait to have.”

Eyssimont is constantly working to improve, a tablet ever at his stall to review his shifts between periods and after games. He recently started using a new stick blade curl that is helping him dig out pucks better and get a more accurate top-shelf shot.

This season Eyssimont has worked his way into a bigger role in the bottom six. After entering the season with five goals in 55 career NHL games, he has two goals and an assist in eight games, including one Thursday in a 6-0 win over the Sharks. His plus-3 is tops among Lightning forwards, and he is striking a balance between blue-collar hockey and utilizing his offensive skill.

Only Nikita Kucherov has more shot attempts (41) than Eyssimont (34) in 5-on-5 play, and Eyssimont’s 15 scoring chances in 5-on-5 rank fifth on the team, a lot for a player averaging just 10:50 of ice time. The 6-foot, 180-pounder also ranks third among forwards in hits (9).

Eyssimont entered pro hockey as a finesse scorer but realized in his first season with the Kings’ AHL affiliate, Ontario, that he needed to transform his game. He had a lot of difficult talks with Ontario’s coach at the time, Mike Stothers (now an assistant with the Ducks), who told him he needed more to make it to the NHL.

“I think I just had to be kind of honest with myself and just realize I have to do whatever it takes to make it to the next level, make it to the NHL” Eyssimont said. “So, to me, that was adding an extra layer to my game on top of the finesse. It was adding speed; it was adding grit.

“I kind of learned the hard way. Fortunately, I did, and right now I’m kind of in a spot where I know what got me to this level and I know what it takes to stay at this level. So, it’s up to me to bring that every single night.”

It’s a quality all teams look for. When Eyssimont was traded to Tampa Bay, San Jose coach David Quinn was surprised. Sharks general manager Mike Grier quickly flipped Namestnikov to the Jets for a draft pick to aid the Sharks’ rebuild, but Quinn was a big fan of Eyssimont’s game, adding him to his U.S. team for the world championships.

This week, as the struggling Sharks visited Amalie Arena for the first time since the Eyssimont-Point fight, Quinn said he wished his young team showed more of the competitive fire Eyssimont is building his career on.

“I loved having him,” Quinn said. “He’s a guy that you would go to war with.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected]. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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