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Mikey Eyssimont’s perseverance lands full-time gig and a special honor

MONTREAL — In the middle of his breakthrough NHL season, Lightning forward Mikey Eyssimont is rarely satisfied, always reaching for anything that can make him better.

At his stall in the corner of the Lightning dressing room, Eyssimont can often be found with his head buried in his tablet, laboriously studying his shifts so he can build on the good and learn from the bad.

“I sometimes feel like a 10-year-old kid at dinner where he can’t put his iPad down,” Eyssimont said with a chuckle. “But it’s important for me to make sure I know that I’m getting fired up over the things that I’m doing well out there and watching some good things, and then on the other side of that it’s also having the visual to be able to clean things up and do what the coaches need me to do.”

At the age of 27, Eyssimont has finally found an NHL home. His acquisition at last year’s trade deadline from San Jose didn’t receive much buzz at the time other than helping the cap-strapped Lightning move veteran forward Vladislav Namestnikov’s salary. But the addition of Eyssimont has provided Tampa Bay with something it has needed, a line driver dedicated to hard-nosed play and keeping the puck in the offensive zone.

“He just brings energy,” said Lightning center and current linemate Nick Paul. “He goes out there, he gets his hands dirty, throws his body, he skates super fast so you just kind of watch him play and you get energy from him.”

For that, Eyssimont has been named as the Lightning’s nominee by the Tampa Bay chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. The award is given each year to a player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey.

Each team has a nominee for the award, and an overall winner is selected by the membership of the PHWA. Only one Lightning player has ever won the Masterton, former Tampa Bay center John Cullen in 1998-99 after he overcame non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“It’s an honor,” Eyssimont said of the nomination. “I know (Pierre-Edouard) Bellemare (was the nominee) last year, and he was a pretty special person for me in this locker room, someone I was able to lean on and helped me get to where I am now this season with this new team.”

Eyssimont’s journey is one of perseverance. The Lightning are his fourth NHL organization, and the third team he played for last season. He’s had to re-invent his game to find a place in the league, going from a scorer to a player who could bring other intangibles. He is a determined two-way player, a hard forechecker, pacesetter and pest, and was rewarded as an everyday NHL regular for the first time this season.

On a Lightning roster that’s lost its share of depth over the last several years due to a flat salary cap, Eyssimont has earned an important role on this team. When the Lightning sputtered out of the gate this season and were struggling defensively, Eyssimont was one of the few forwards with a positive plus-minus.

With 11 goals in 75 games, Eyssimont is the least likeliest of the Lightning’s 10 double-digit goal scorers, but he is also second among forwards on the team with 122 hits. He is also tied with the league’s leading scorer, Nikita Kucherov, for the best plus-minus on the team among forwards at plus-8.

“I think every year I try to elevate my game to a point where I’m playing the best hockey I’ve ever played at some point during the season, and try to continue that stretch and continue developing, keeping that development mindset that I had when I was in the AHL, where you’re working all summer and during the season with skating coaches and skills coaches and doing stuff extra stuff,” Eyssimont said.

“I’ll never lose that mentality, I’ll never be settled in as the player that I am and always strive to be better as an all-around hockey player. When I’m not playing my game, I know that I’m not doing the things that got me here. And ultimately I always just remember to revert back to the hard-working, forechecking, gritty, hardest-worker-on-the-ice player.”

Eyssimont has been placed on waivers three times in his career, including twice last season. The team that originally drafted Eyssimont, the Kings in 2015, let him go after three AHL seasons. He signed a two-way deal with Winnipeg in 2021 and eventually earned his first NHL callup last season with them. But he went to the Sharks as a waiver claim in January before the Lightning acquired him from the Sharks on March 1.

His game is a flashback to that of Yanni Gourde, the former Lightning third-line center who could buzz around the net, was a relentless forechecker and puck hound, and got under an opponent’s skin at will. He wasn’t yet an every-game regular, but Eyssimont provided a spark for the Lightning in last year’s first-round playoff series, playing in a must-win Game 5 at Toronto and scoring his first postseason goal and getting an assist to help extend the series.

The Lightning saw all his positives in his short time with them last season and, with Eyssimont heading to unrestricted free agency, signed him to a one-way, two-year contract in May.

“Right away when I got here, I wanted to be here,” Eyssimont said. “I was motivated … to make sure that I had that opportunity, and there’s still a lot of work ahead. But ultimately I love this city, the fans and the staff.”

Eyssimont was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease during his college days at St. Cloud State. Crohn’s is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes your digestive tract to become swollen and irritated. The disease saps his energy, forcing him to live a lifestyle that focuses on getting adequate sleep, having a clean diet and taking care of his body. He takes medication every eight months, and he has worked with charities helping kids and young athletes with Crohn’s.

“I kind of have an advantage over a lot of guys since I’ve been diagnosed as I have to stay healthy and I have to live the lifestyle that ultimately aligns with what my goals are as a professional athlete,” Eyssimont said. “I don’t have a choice, and I just kind of am maybe lucky that way. But really, I’ve learned to simplify things in my life and make sure that my health comes first.”

Even though he’s finally seeing success — and a regular role — at the NHL level, Eyssimont said he hopes it’s just the beginning for him. His relentlessness shooting the puck and getting it on net is rare. Eyssimont’s shots per 60 minutes rate of 9.15 is second only to Kucherov’s 9.46.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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