If there was one offseason move the New Jersey Devils still needed to make, it was adding a top-six talent. They took care of that yesterday when they acquired Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for a 2020 third-round pick and 2021 second-round pick.
Soon after the trade was made official, the team announced they had signed Gusev to a two-year, $9 million deal ($4.5 million AAV). The 27-year-old left-wing finished with 82 points in 62 games in 2018-19 and won the KHL Golden Stick as regular-season MVP in 2018.
Who Is Gusev?
Maybe you haven’t heard of Gusev before, and that’s understandable. He was a seventh-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2012 but never played a game for them, opting to remain in the KHL instead. The Golden Knights received his rights as part of a trade package when they acquired Jason Garrison from the Lightning during the Expansion Draft in 2017.
Gusev signed a one-year, entry-level contract before the NHL playoffs began in April, but he never played in a game. In doing so, he did not gain pro status and missed out on being a Group 2 RFA. This means he had no arbitration rights and could not receive an offer sheet from another team.
That limited the Golden Knights’ options and what they could do with Gusev. The Devils pounced on the opportunity and took a chance on a player with a ton of potential but no experience on North American ice. So why all the buzz for a player that has never played an NHL game before?
His 2018-19 season wasn’t a one-off in the KHL. He finished with 71 points in 57 games in 2016-17 and followed it up with 62 points in 54 games in 2017-18, the latter which resulted in his KHL MVP Award. He was SKA St. Petersburg’s leading scorer this season by 36 points (Alexander Barabanov finished with 46), and he led the league in scoring, finishing 13 points ahead of second-place Nigel Dawes.
As high as his potential is, there comes some risk. It’s hard to say what his impact will be on North American ice since he has no previous experience. With that said, he’s dominated the KHL for quite some time. And his numbers are not far off from Artemi Panarin, who had 62 points in 54 games in his final KHL season as a 24-year-old.
I’m not saying he’ll be as good or better than Panarin, but he does have the potential to be a top-scoring threat. His 82-point KHL season would translate to 79 points in the NHL, and he’s walking into a situation with some good scoring talent around him, so it’s easy to see why the Devils would take the risk.
Shero’s Moves Falling Into Place
The Devils have had a busy offseason as is. It started by drafting Jack Hughes first overall at the Entry Draft and acquiring P.K. Subban the next day. The additions didn’t stop there as general manager Ray Shero signed forward Wayne Simmonds when free agency began on July 1.
Not much had happened since then until yesterday’s trade. There are still some question marks around their roster, but for the most part, things are beginning to take shape. There are a few possibilities up front, but their top-six could look something like this:
Taylor Hall – Nico Hischier – Jesper Bratt
Nikita Gusev – Jack Hughes – Kyle Palmieri
Is that the best group in the NHL? Not quite, but it’s not a stretch to say it has the potential to be one of the best. And there are other ways to mix things up like swapping Bratt and Palmieri or playing Gusev with Hischier. The most important takeaway is this gives Devils’ head coach John Hynes options, and that hasn’t always been the case during his tenure.
The rest of their lines are a little tougher to predict, but they should end up with solid depth either way. Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac will anchor the third line. It’s just a matter of who plays with them (Maybe Simmonds or top prospect Jesper Boqvist). That could leave the team with a fourth line of Miles Wood, Kevin Rooney, Pavel Zacha or even Simmonds. That’s the kind of depth they’ve lacked for years, so it’s safe to say they’re in a much better spot heading into training camp than last year.
The Price Is Just Right
The Devils got what they needed in Gusev, and at a fairly low cost. They followed it up by signing him to a deal with a $4.5 million cap hit, which could turn out to be great value. If he lives up to the hype and produces close to 70 points, then a contract worth $4.5 million per year is going to be one of the best in the league.
For those concerned he may not make it in the NHL, Evgenii Dadonov and Panarin have done incredibly well since they made their way over a few years ago, and Gusev’s KHL numbers are pretty similar. His style of play should translate well, too, as the league moves more towards speed and skill. He’s going to be a big improvement for their offense, and it gives them another scoring threat behind Hall. Time will tell if he makes them a playoff team, but there’s no doubt things are looking up after his acquisition.