Free-agent profile: Nikita Gusev
A few years ago, Nikita Gusev’s stock was at an all-time high. After his third straight dominant season in the KHL, Vegas (who acquired his rights from Tampa Bay in an expansion-related trade) was finally able to bring him over to North America by burning the only year of his entry-level deal without him playing a single game. Months later, they realized they wouldn’t be able to afford him and flipped him to New Jersey for second and third-round selections.
The Devils promptly handed him a two-year, $9M contract, a sizable commitment for someone who had never played in the NHL before. Still, it seemed like a reasonable move as they had openings in their top six so he’d have a chance to be an impact player right away. His first season was pretty good with 44 points in 66 games and while there were some bumps along the way, that’s legitimate second-line production.
Things didn’t go as well last season, however. Gusev’s role lessened to the point where he was scratched at times and after he cleared waivers and no trade partner materialized, he accepted a contract termination and signed for less money with Florida to get an opportunity down the stretch. He did well with that, notching five points in 11 games but in the playoffs, he was scratched once again.
At 29, Gusev is certainly still young enough to play in the NHL for several more years and his first season with New Jersey showed that he has the ability to produce in the NHL. That makes him an intriguing option among those still looking for a place to play in 2021-22.
2020-21: 31 GP, 4-6-10, -12 rating, 2 PIMS, 72 shots, 57.9 CF%, 14:21 ATOI
Career: 97 GP, 17-37-54, -27 rating, 14 PIMS, 230 shots, 51.5 CF%, 14:35 ATOI
Gusev could go a few different ways here, changing the potentially interested teams in the process. If he’s looking to maximize money, the options will be limited. But if he’s open to a one-year deal around the $1M mark (similar to what he did with Florida), he becomes a low-risk option for some cap-strapped teams that are looking to make an incremental gain offensively.
In the first scenario, Buffalo makes some sense as a fit. There would be an opportunity for Gusev to play an important role, potentially in their top six where he’d have a chance to put up a level of production closer to his first season. Detroit could use him although he’d be a little lower on the depth chart; the same could be said for Nashville who could certainly benefit from an influx of offense as could San Jose. In each of these scenarios, a one-year deal would also create the possibility of trying to move him at the trade deadline. It didn’t work for New Jersey last season but with a better showing and a cheaper contract, the odds of a trade happening would be better by the 2022 deadline.
If he’s willing to sign a cheaper contract, Colorado stands out as an appealing option. The Avs are typically a high-scoring team and Gusev would add some firepower to a forward group that lost Brandon Saad (free agency) and Joonas Donskoi (expansion) this summer. Philadelphia has a shot at deploying four lines with decent offensive upside and someone like Gusev would further push them in that direction.
Gusev ranked 41st on our Top 50 UFA list with a projected one-year, $2M contract. That type of contract could be on the table closer to training camp if he wants to sign with a rebuilding team but if he wants to play on a playoff-bound team, he may need to come in closer to half of that. At that price tag, he could wind up being quite a bargain.