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After a Rough Start, Nikita Gusev Has Come Alive as One of the Devils Best Players

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The Devils’ season may be lost, but as we look toward the future, one of the more encouraging developments recently has been the turnaround of Nikita Gusev and his emergence as an elite playmaker.

NHL: JAN 07 Islanders at Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Devils continue to be dead and buried in the standings, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still positives to extract from the past couple months. Among those positives has been the surge in play for summer acquisition Nikita Gusev. After the Devils traded for Gusev’s rights and signed the reigning KHL MVP this summer, there was palpable excitement for his arrival in New Jersey. As the Devils stumbled out of the gate, though, so did Gusev. The Devils losses piled up and Gusev struggled mightily to find his game in the NHL over the opening month and a half. Disappointment was everywhere. Those early struggles are starting to disappear in the rear-view mirror for Gusev, at least, as his game has turned a big time corner over the past couple months.

Over his first fifteen appearances, Gusev was getting crushed in the run of play constantly. Through the game against Pittsburgh on the 15th of November, Gusev had a team-worst 5v5 xGF share, checking in at an abysmal 33.7%. That Pittsburgh game was something of a nadir for Gusev, as he checked in with a 0% xGF in seven minutes of ES ice time. Through November 15th, his counting stats weren’t all that impressive either, with just six points in his 15 games. More than a few people started wondering aloud whether Gusev could hack it in the NHL.

The reality was, though, that Gusev wasn’t being given much ice time and while the numbers looked dire in some respects, he wasn’t really getting a ton of runway to iron out his issues as a guy who was playing on North American ice for the first time. The fact that the Devils as a whole were spiraling out of the gate probably exacerbated the issue as the coaches likely felt that they couldn’t afford to just let Gusev take his lumps and learn on the job. Gusev averaged less than 9:30 per night at 5v5 over the opening month and a half and he had several nights where he didn't even crack 10 minutes in all situations. That’s not a lot of opportunity for a guy to find his legs and adjust, but doubts were creeping in about whether the Devils traded for a dud in some corners of the fanbase (though frustration with John Hynes’ deployment decisions abounded as well).

That low point of that Penguins game represented an inflection point of sorts for Gusev (if not for the Devils as a whole, unfortunately). After that game, where he registered zero shots, was on the ice for zero unblocked attemps for the Devils at 5v5, and registered only 8:31 of total ice time, Gusev must have had something click in his head. Over his next 11 games, Gusev would finish with an xGF share over 60% eight times. The difference between Gusev’s on-ice numbers through the 15th of November and after is so stark as to be barely believable.

Statistics via Natural Stat Trick

Gusev’s on-ice stats were truly brutal the first 15 games of his season. He was last on the team in CF%, xGF%, and HDCF%, each by a healthy margin. His individual points numbers looked pretty good, though they were powered largely by an obviously unsustainable 23.5% 5v5 shooting percentage. Flip that to his post-November stats and you might be able to argue he’s been one of the best players in the entire league since that point. He went from worst to first on the Devils in the three categories mentioned above, and he actually managed to increase his point output in spite of a complete cratering of his shooting percentage to 2%. In fact, he is 17th in the entire league in 5v5 points per 60 even with the dismal shooting luck over that stretch, and he’s not just getting cheapy assists to do it. Almost all of his assists since that point have been primary, and he is second in the league in both 5v5 assists and 5v5 primary assists since November 16th. Put short, Gusev’s trajectory went from “are we positive this guy belongs in the league?” to an impact player and maybe one of the top playmaking talents in the NHL in a couple months’ time.

So how did we get here? I think it’s reasonable to say that Gusev probably needed some time to adjust to the speed and style of the NHL. He’s 27, so he’s been playing KHL hockey for a while and probably had some tendencies that worked over there that he needed to unlearn in order to adjust to the North American game. Different from a prospect, who is accustomed to changing leagues every couple years as they advance through the ranks, Gusev spent most of his last nine seasons in the KHL. He had switched teams a few times over there and spent some time in the junior-level MHL early on, but crossing an ocean to play in a completely different league (the best in the world, no less) is a massive adjustment for someone in the midst of their prime. Gusev is clearly a smart player and, to an extent, maybe he just figured it out. Once he found his timing and calibrated where to go after opportunities on NHL ice against NHL defenders, his instincts were able to carry him toward the top of the league.

Alternatively, the coaching staff may have found a line combination that plays to Gusev’s strengths at even strength. About 80% of Gusev’s 5v5 minutes since 11/16 have come on a line with both Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman. Over 90% of his minutes have been with at least one of those two. On it’s face, it makes a lot of sense. The narrative on Gusev early on was that he was such a defensive liability that he was cratering whatever line he found his way onto. There certainly seemed to be some truth to that and it was even true of Coleman and Zajac in the above-mentioned Penguins game on November 15th. But Coleman and Zajac, known for their two-way impact and defensive responsibility, made sense to pair with a guy like Gusev to paper over his shortcomings and allow him to cook. It’s hard to argue that it hasn’t worked out that way, as that line has done well on an otherwise cratering team for much of this stretch and Gusev’s game has taken off.

I do think it might be time for the Devils to consider some experimenting with putting Gusev on other lines again, though. It’s a small sample, but in Gusev’s short time away from both Zajac and Coleman since November 16th, many of his on-ice numbers actually improve. In his 25 minutes untethered to Coleman and/or Zajac, the Devils are outscoring opponents 3-1 and out-high-danger-chancing them 10-3. That’s not enough to make a definitive statement that he’s better off split from those guys or anything, but I think it’s enough to take a leap and try out some different options again. As I said in last Friday’s post, if this lost season has any benefit, it’s that there is plenty of time to try different options and let talented guys like Gusev figure things out if they need to.

Moving beyond any nitpicks with his recent deployment, though, it’s been great to see Gusev emerge the way he has. After all the disappointment of the opening three months, the magnitude of Gusev’s turnaround has only begun to be appreciated recently. If he continues playing the way he has the past couple months over the rest of the season, Ray Shero should be calling his agent on July 1 to try to work out an extension as soon as possible. With Taylor Hall’s departure in December and Nico Hischier locked into what is likely to be a fairly team-friendly deal, the Devils will have a little extra spending cash in the medium-term for things like a contract for Gusev. Hopefully, Gusev can continue to refine his game for the NHL over the remainder of this season and beyond that, hopefully he’ll be in black and red for a while.