Earlier this afternoon, the New Jersey Devils obtained a Goose. The Devils traded their 2020 third round pick and their 2021 second round pick to the Vegas Golden Knights for the rights to Nikita Gusev. Shortly after that was announced, the Devils announced they signed the left winger to a two-season contract worth $9 million. According to the team’s announcement at their official website, Gusev will get $5 million this season and $4 million next season. Honk in celebration of the news, if you can.
How Did We Get Here?
Gusev was initially drafted by Tampa Bay in the seventh round way back in 2012. Gusev remained playing in Russia. The Vegas Golden Knights were onto something when they acquired his rights from Tampa Bay in 2017 at the expansion draft. However, Gusev signed an extension with SKA St. Petersburg weeks later and would go on to have his first of three outstanding KHL seasons.
The Knights would bring him over in 2019 after he agreed to an entry level contract in April (hence, the headline photo, that’s from a practice), but he would not appear in the postseason for Vegas. Since he was 26 then, that ELC ran out on July 1, 2019 and he became a restricted free agent. Vegas then had a problem. Gusev wanted a deal with a cap hit of about $4 million and Vegas simply did not have the cap space to accommodate him. It was not a secret that he was on the trade block. Threats to go back to Russia were issued by the agent. It has been a near-month-long standstill for the Golden Knights.
Obviously, the deadlock was broken today. General Manager Ray Shero was able to get Gusev’s services for the cost of two picks. Vegas would get a second rounder - in two years on top of a third round pick coming sooner. Shero was also able to give Gusev what they wanted in terms of cash. Now the Goose is a Devil.
Who is Nikita Gusev and Should We Be Excited for This?
Absolutely. Devils fans should be honking in celebration.
Gusev was a star in the Kontinental Hockey League and for SKA St. Petersburg. Last season, per Elite-Prospects, Gusev put up 17 goals and 62 assists. He not only led SKA in assists and points last season (second place on the team just had 46 points), he led the entire league in assists and points. He continued his torrid production into the KHL playoffs with nine goals and ten assists in 19 games. He put up four goals and twelve assists in the World Championships. Whatever Gusev wanted to do, he was usually able to make it happen. It was no flash in the pan season for Gusev either. Gusev was the regular season MVP in the KHL in 2017-18 and he was named the Best Forward at the 2018 Olympics as he led that competition in scoring there too. Additionally, in 2018-19 Gusev put up his third straight 60+ point season in the KHL. In his entire career so far in the KHL, Gusev put up an outstanding 332 points in 391 games. That is astounding.
Allow me to put it in this perspective to demonstrate why it is astounding. Artemi Panarin, who is now swimming in money in Manhattan, was another 5’11” and not very heavy winger signed out of the KHL like Gusev. Panarin put up 183 points in 263 KHL season games and 29 points in 42 KHL playoff games. Evgeny Dadonov, another 5’11” and not super-heavy winger who was re-signed out of the KHL, put up 240 points in 311 KHL season games and 60 points in 71 KHL playoff games. Gusev’s 0.85 points per KHL season game is vastly superior to Panarin’s 0.70 and Dadonov’s 0.77 per game rates. For those who prefer playoff production, Gusev has a 1.01 (!) point per game rate compared to Panarin’s 0.65 and Dadonov’s 0.85 in the playoffs. Those are not just superior rates by a small amount; Gusev’s production was that much. Gusev out-produced two very, very good wingers in the KHL. Do recall that Panarin and Dadonov both hit the ground running from a production standpoint in the NHL. Now someone even better from the KHL is coming to the NHL and, more importantly, he is coming to the Devils. This is going to be glorious.
If that is not enough to excite you, take about twelve minutes in your life to watch this highlight video of Gusev putting in work:
Those hands. That battling through stickchecks and traffic. That skating. That vision. And this player is now a Devil. This is great.
What About the Cost? Any Caveats?
Not really. The contract itself is reasonable for someone of Gusev’s stature. According to CapFriendly, Dadonov received a $4 million AAV contract ($12 million, 3 seasons) from Florida after his successful seasons with SKA St. Petersburg. Gusev was better with SKA St. Petersburg than Dadonov was so it stands to reason he should get a little more. The term of two seasons is flexible as well. As far as I am aware, there are no clauses to the deal so if the fit is not good, then Shero could presumably deal him to a team that wanted Gusev initially. After this signing, the Devils have about $12.4 million left in cap space with Will Butcher and Pavel Zacha left to sign. This move and the two left they have to make should not put the Devils in any kind of cap crunch.
What about the picks? The Devils have a ton of young players in their system and in the organization right now. It is not as if they will be short on prospective players in the near future. In this offseason, it has clear that the Devils are looking to get better today as opposed to maybe tomorrow. Therefore, the Devils have been in a good position to move picks for players that can help them out today. Hence, the P.K. Subban trade and today’s acquisition of Gusev. I think Gusev helping them out today outweighs the need of having a third rounder in 2020 or a second rounder in 2021. I’m very happy that Vegas did not request a first rounder and that Shero seemingly was not offering it.
I can only think of two caveats. First, Gusev is 27. What you see out of Gusev now is what you are going to get. It is arguable his prime was already back in Russia. That is not a bad thing and does not mean he is going to bust. Dadonov was 28 when he had his first full season with Florida and he turned 29 by the end of his 65-point campaign in 2017-18. He turned 30 as he put up 70 points last season. I do not think anyone would claim he was “done.” I believe someone can absolutely be productive player and a great contributor in your late 20s and early 30s. I am confident Gusev will do so. But anyone expect Gusev to develop is likely going to be disappointed. He’ll adjust to the NHL game and North American rinks in time; but he is not suddenly going to grow a whole lot as a player. I think that is fine; Gusev has demonstrated long enough in the KHL that he can be an offensive threat.
Second, left wing is now a little crowded. Miles Wood and Blake Coleman both saw a lot of time at this position last season. They’re definitely on the team. For younger Devils trying to make the New Jersey roster, Gusev’s arrival now presents an obstacle. Pavel Zacha, who should also be on the team, may be better off as a left winger than a center. Now, is there room for that? I do not know. Jesper Boqvist could have had an opportunity to compete for a second-line left winger spot. Now, Boqvist is in a battle with others. Brett Seney also could play left wing as well as center. This acquisition blocks his path a little more. I am fine with adding more competition. While I have high hopes for Boqvist, the others can wait a little bit for opportunities on the roster to present themselves. If Gusev steps in and performs well right away, then I do not think many will even think of this as an issue. (Aside: Of course, the Devils could trade a left winger once Gusev is settled. But that is a different post for a different day.)
Both caveats in my opinion are small ones. The Devils added a near-sure-fire top-six forward for two picks. The Devils signed him to a reasonable deal given some of his comparables for a fairly short term. I would do this deal every day of the week if I were in Shero’s shoes.
How Will the Devils Use Him?
The Devils needed a second-line left winger. Nikita Gusev plays left wing, despite having a right-handed shot. On paper, Gusev is a natural fit to be on that second line behind Hall at left wing. Easy. Now daydream wonderful potential lines that John Hynes could possibly put together. Imagine a trio of Gusev, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt. Or Gusev, Hischier, and Simmonds. Or Gusev, Hischier, and Palmieri. Or, if you’re feeling daring, Hall, Hughes, and Gusev on the right. The potential combinations are tantalizing.
Gusev should also see time on the power play. It is a big question as to where, though. The Devils may really need to re-think how to organize their two units now that the coaches have a forward pool of Hall, Gusev, Palmieri, Hughes, Hischier, Simmonds, Zajac, Bratt, and Zacha (Add Boqvist if he makes the team). Even if they insist on using four forwards on each unit, how they’re set up is going to make a big difference. Having too many options is a lot better than having too few. Today’s acquisition and signing helps in that regard.
I am not sure Gusev will or should see time on the penalty kill. The Devils’ forwards on the PK last season were great and that was without using Nico Hischier as a regular. I do not think it is necessary unless it turns out that Gusev is great in two-way play. Even then, I would prefer to use the other forwards as available.
What Will His Number Be?
According to the Devils’ official Twitter account, it will be the same as his number with SKA St. Petersburg: #97. Gusev will be the first Devil to wear #97 in franchise history per Hockey-Reference.
The Devils have added the Goose. You may declare July 29 to be Gusev Day. I think this is a great deal and I am very excited for it. I want to see what Gusev will do with the team; I think it will be fantastic. Now I want to know what you think of today’s news. Are you happy with the trade? Are you happy with the contract he signed? What do you expect Gusev to do with the Devils this season? How do you think the Devils should use Gusev on this roster? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Nikita Gusev in the comments. Thank you for reading.