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Should Nikita Gusev Get a Contract Extension from the New Jersey Devils?

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Nikita Gusev is one of the most important upcoming free agents of the 2021 class. Today, we review his performance in 2019-20 and whether he should be extended before reaching free agency.

Nashville Predators v New Jersey Devils
A surprisingly good duo.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

All About the Jersey has recently been reviewing whether the team should re-sign players who have contracts that would have expired on July 1, 2020. Of those currently-expiring RFAs and UFAs, only a couple come close to the level of importance that Nikita Gusev’s next contract holds. After trading for his rights from the Vegas Golden Knights, Nikita Gusev signed a contract with the Devils for two years and an annual average value of $4.5 million. Once that contract expires, he will be an unrestricted free agent. However, the Devils have the right to offer him an extension before he hits free agency - as the CBA allows the team to negotiate within one year of the contract’s expiry date.

Nikita Gusev has played one season in the NHL - only the one he just played with the New Jersey Devils. In the 66 games he played, Gusev had 13 goals and 31 assists in an average ice time of just 14:42 per game. All things considered, that is a pretty good stat line for jumping from the KHL. However, it was not always smooth sailing for the then-27 year old Russian forward during the Devils’ season.

Evaluating Nikita Gusev’s 2019-20 Season

Nikita Gusev struck fast for the New Jersey Devils, scoring a goal in his first game - the awful shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets. After that point, Gusev only had four goals and three assists in his next 19 games played, in which he played a measly 12:51 per game under coach John Hynes. Starting with a three assist performance that came on Thanksgiving against the Montreal Canadiens (all primary assists), Gusev scored eight goals and 28 assists for a total 36 points in the remaining 46 games he played, seeing just 15:30 of ice time per game. But while Gusev figured out his scoring, his defense still left something to be desired. From HockeyViz, here’s Nikita Gusev’s isolated impact chart.

HockeyViz; Micah Blake McCurdy

What I notice in Gusev’s chart is the relative absence of shots in the high faceoff circle to the right of the goal in the defensive zone. Since the team mostly used Gusev on the right side rather than on the left this season, it appears that Gusev on defense stayed in a small area of the ice and did not impact play much other than preventing shots from the general area he stayed in. While his offensive impact is good, Gusev does need to start generating offense closer to the net. Also notable is that HockeyViz shows that when Gusev is on the ice, the team takes fewer penalties and draws more. Given Gusev’s power play ability, that is a significant positive if it can continue next season. Over 66 games, Gusev only took six minor penalties.

Nikita Gusev mostly lined up next to two centers - Travis Zajac and Pavel Zacha. While those lines performed similarly in terms of expected goals ratio, their outcomes in real goals were vastly different. Gusev’s time with Zacha led to a much more favorable than expected real goals ratio. While he spent the majority of his time with Zajac and Zacha, Gusev also played about 105 minutes (combined) with Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. Below, you can see the comparison of Gusev’s combinations with the four main Devils centers with data from Natural Stat Trick.

Natural Stat Trick

When Nikita Gusev was with Travis Zajac, the success of the two mostly depended on the presence of Blake Coleman. In the 398 minutes they played together, the Devils had an expected goals percentage of 52.50%. By comparison, in the 30 minutes that Gusev and Zajac played with Miles Wood, the Devils were outscored 3-0 and had an xGF% of 20.71. He spent much less time with Hughes and Hischier, and did not appear to be a good fit with the also-small Jack Hughes.

In terms of performance, he played quite well (relative to the rest of the team) with Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt. However, this success was not as reliant on Jesper Bratt as many might think. In the 72 minutes he played with only Pavel Zacha, the Devils had a 45.38 CF% and a 49.16 xGF% with a real goals ratio of five to five. In the 43 minutes he played with Jesper Bratt without Pavel Zacha, the team had a 38.71 CF%, a 31.78 xGF%, but somehow a three to none goals ratio in favor of the Devils. For a player who did not fit with any other linemates during the season, Pavel Zacha’s presence at center seemed to stabilize and make Nikita Gusev’s line with Jesper Bratt sustainable.

Nikita Gusev also played 47:39 of his total on the power play with both Jesper Bratt and Pavel Zacha. In that time, the three had an 81.08 CF%, scored six goals and allowed none, with an xGF% of 77.52 and an xGF/60 of 5.9. By comparison, in the 81:21 that Nico Hischier played with Jack Hughes on the power play without Taylor Hall, the team had a 90.13 CF%, scored eight goals and allowed three, with an xGF% of 95.56 and an xGF/60 of 7.56. So, while the first unit of the power play generally underperformed their expected goals, the Gusev, Zacha, and Bratt unit continued to outperform their expected goals on the power play. However, the best use for Gusev on the power play is probably with Hughes and Hischier, as in the 23:54 they played together, the Devils scored four and allowed none. They also had an xGF% of 95.14 and an xGF/60 of 9.3. With Gusev, Hischier and Hughes’ on-ice shot percentage improved from 9.38% to 17.39%.

Nikita Gusev’s defensive inability did hurt the Devils at times, as he seemed to vacillate between improving the team’s even strength defense and hurting the team on the other end. From Evolving-Hockey, here’s Gusev’s 2019-20 RAPM chart.

Evolving-Hockey

Nikita Gusev needs to learn to be more of a difference maker in the defensive zone in his second NHL season. Looking back at his isolated impact chart for the defensive zone, it looks like he did not know how to play defense in the NHL, staying to one small spot on the ice. He needs to better pressure the point so that they can either not take shots or not cycle the puck lower in the zone; as he appears to allow an excess of shots below where he holds his position. Better learning how to play to the NHL style from new coaches may help him tame his xGA impact.

Gusev’s Future with the Team:

Nikita Gusev is now 28 years old, and will be 29 next July shortly after his contract is set to expire. As far as the prime of hockey careers go, Gusev might be passing his by soon. Still, his high amount of offensive talent makes him a necessary part of the team moving forward. His even strength play improved throughout the 2019-20 season and his power play performance is impeccable - as he could have reached 20 power play points in a full season.

The trick to extending Gusev’s contract will be how soon Tom Fitzgerald opens negotiations with the forward. If he were to start soon, both sides would be operating on the at-times rocky first season that Gusev played, and the solid but not amazing point-scoring rate of 0.67 per game. If Tom Fitzgerald chooses to wait to negotiate a contract with Nikita Gusev, he risks Gusev continuing to improve upon his scoring (as he no longer needs to make many adjustments to his offensive game) and driving up the price of whatever contract extension he is worth. If the 2021 season is a full 82 game schedule, and Gusev scores 70 points, then we might expect Gusev to nearly double his salary in his next contract. If you do not think that is possible, then consider that Nikita Gusev scored 30 points in the final 37 games he played, which translates to an 82-game pace of 66.5 points.

I think it would be much better for Fitzgerald to open negotiations as soon as possible rather than wait for Gusev to show how good he can really be. The starting point for a negotiation now that Gusev has shown his ability to at least be a middle six and power play scorer in the NHL over the majority of season should probably be $5-6 million per year over a four to five year contract. That would take Gusev to age 33 or 34 at the end of the contract and allow him to get at least one more multi-year contract with a team before retirement.

If Fitzgerald waits to negotiate with Nikita Gusev and Gusev tears the NHL up next season, I would expect a higher salary. If he were to score 70 points, I would expect a contract with an AAV of $6.5-7 million. If her were to score 80 points, I would expect him to not be re-signed by the New Jersey Devils - and if he was I would expect a contract with an AAV of $7.5-8 million. The relative lack of sample size might hold him back from making any more than an upper range of about $9 million per year - I do not expect him to get money comparable to Panarin even if he were to also score 87 points in his contract year (which I would not expect on the New Jersey Devils as of this moment) despite their similar age (Gusev is slightly more than eight months younger).

Ultimately, the more the Devils wait to lock up Nikita Gusev, the more likely it is that they end up losing him. Having made two first overall selections in recent years and with up to three first round picks this season, I am not sure of the utility of continuing to trade the team’s talent for draft picks. The Devils have plenty of high-end young talent (and is more lacking in prospect pool depth anyway). Thus, I would much rather see Nikita Gusev re-signed by the New Jersey Devils. If he makes it to free agency and is signed by another team, the Devils get no compensation since he will be a UFA. Therefore, it is imperative that Tom Fitzgerald extends Nikita Gusev’s contract before the 2021 Trade Deadline.

Because why would you want this man gone?

Your Thoughts:

What do you think about Nikita Gusev? Do you think that Tom Fitzgerald should re-sign him? When would you want to see that happen? What do you think about Gusev’s placement in the lineup going forward? How much would you like to see him on the ice in the 2021 season? Do you think he should play next to Pavel Zacha or Nico Hischier next season? Do you think he should be traded if not signed by the next trade deadline? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Credits to Natural Stat Trick for their line tool, Evolving-Hockey for the RAPM chart, and HockeyViz for the isolated impact chart.