Last week, I wrote how for the New Jersey Devils to really get better as a team, it will need to see improvement from some key role players. I wrote about Jesper Boqvist at the time, and his growth in year two with the Devils will be imperative. Another player, whose year last year was the first in the NHL, will also need to show some growth if the Devils want to improve in the standings. While in more of a prominent role than Boqvist, nonetheless, that would be Nikita Gusev.
Of course, the comparisons between Gusev and any other rookie are somewhat minimal. Gusev was 27 years old as a rookie in the NHL, and had 7 full seasons of KHL experience before coming over, along a couple of partial seasons before that too. He was a star for SKA St. Petersburg from 2016 through 2019, producing over a point per game for them for three and a half seasons. Considering that is the 2nd highest level of pro hockey in the world, it is safe to say that he was already an established pro player well before signing in New Jersey.
So while the expectations for Boqvist were relatively low, just being happy to see some success at the NHL level, Gusev came in with Artemi Panarin like expectations. And he did not disappoint, being a top 6 producer for this team from the get go, ending up with 44 points in 61 games. Furthermore, he was the team’s top possession player, with a relative Corsi of 4.40, over a point better than Jesper Bratt, the next current Devil on the list (Blake Coleman, of course, is no longer here). This was thanks to his massive relative CF/60 of 8.55, significantly better than any player on the team last season, with Coleman being #2 at 4.83. That means that when Gusev was out on the ice, the Devils were getting significantly more shot attempts than when he was not out there. He helped to drive play forward and helped generate more attempts than anyone else on the team, and it was not that close. Combined with his strong point production, this points to him having been a real plus producer for this team.
Nonetheless, even given the strong year from Gusev, one where he was clearly one of the best forwards on the team, this will be year two for him in the NHL. We would expect to see growth from any normal second year player, and not seeing improvement from someone like Boqvist or Jack Hughes would be quite disconcerting. But given Gusev’s history, and his rookie year last year, should we expect to see growth?
Well, the truth is that if the Devils want to improve over last season, he will have to improve too. And while Gusev did have a very good season last year, there is still room for growth. Panarin, who took a similar path by playing several pro seasons and establishing himself in the KHL before coming over, has grown since his first season in Chicago back in 2015-16. That year, he dominated, with 77 points in 80 regular season games. However, for the last three seasons, he has been over a point per game, reaching 95 points in 69 games last season, which is Hart Trophy material. Now, given that, he did not necessarily improve between year one and year two, in fact only scoring 74 points in 82 games in year two, slightly off his rookie pace.
Nonetheless, if Gusev were to mirror a somewhat similar path of growth that Panarin took, I think seeing improvement in year two is likely. There are a couple of reasons that I say this. First, Gusev was arguably a better KHL player than Panarin was before he came to the NHL. Panarin only had one season scoring over a point per game before coming to the NHL, while Gusev had four of them. Yes, Panarin was younger when he made the switch, but still. Also, Panarin had a much better rookie season in the NHL than Gusev did. 44 points in 61 games and a quality possession game is very good, but it isn’t 77 points in 80 games to go along with another 7 postseason points in 7 playoff games. Panarin gave himself an extremely high bar in year one, and could not improve on that until year 3.
Gusev, on the other hand, left himself room for growth. Combined during his time in SKA, he scored 1.21 points per game. Last season, he managed 0.72. Yes, the NHL is a higher level of competition, but these numbers still show us that growth is very possible. I understand that he is not Panarin, and could take a very different path here in the NHL, but Artemi is the closest comparison we have to Gusev, and the comparison is worth considering. The Devils certainly hope that Gusev can become a point per game player for them like he was in SKA and like Panarin has become, and the talent is there. If he continues to adapt to the NHL game, he could easily produce well over 0.8 points per game this year, or more.
That would be a huge boon to the Devils offense this season. Last year, the team only produced 185 goals for, good for 7th worst in the NHL. They need scoring, as seen by their draft choices of Alexander Holtz and Dawson Mercer. However, those guys won’t be here this year, and they need an uptick in production from those still around. Gusev will be one of those guys. If he can generate more points for this team, that could help to get them out of the bottom 10 in goals for in the league. I wouldn’t necessarily bet on them getting out of the bottom 10 honestly, but if they are to do it, they need someone like Gusev to up his game in year two, producing closer to a point per game. He certainly has the talent, and he should have good linemates to play with, perhaps Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri, so the possibilities are there. Also, given his strong possession game, when he is out there, the Devils will generate more attempts for, that is just fact. A little boost in PDO, not out of the realm of possibility considering their 0.988 number last season, would also boost his point total, as more of those attempts would find twine.
So while the growth for someone like Jesper Boqvist, who I wrote about last week, is about seeing him become a truly NHL-caliber player, for Nikita Gusev, considering he is already one of the best forwards on the team, his year two growth will be about seeing him take the next level to all-star quality, something that is definitely possible. The room for growth is there, let’s just see if he can take it. If he does, it will bode very well for the Devils offense in 2020-21 and beyond.