If there’s one thing Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas has always been consistent with, it’s exercising the importance of having good depth. It seems as though every season since Dubas became GM, the Maple Leafs have brought in far more than enough players to make up a roster. We saw it in 2020-21 with players like Travis Boyd, Jimmy Vesey, and Alexander Barabanov.
On Sept. 17, Dubas showed another example of this by signing forward Nikita Gusev to a professional tryout (PTO). A seventh-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 29-year-old came to North America after his rights were traded to the Vegas Golden Knights and then to the New Jersey Devils prior to the 2019-20 season. Gusev was a hot commodity in the Kontinential Hockey League (KHL) at the time and has a total of 332 points in 391 career KHL games.
While he hasn’t lived up to the hype that surrounded him as he made his way to the NHL, he’s an incredibly talented player and certainly one worth at least taking a flyer on to see what he can bring to the NHL.
Gusev’s Hockey Career to Date
Gusev was originally drafted 202nd overall in 2012 by the Lightning. He didn’t make it overseas until 2019-20, and the longer he stayed in Russia, the bigger the suspense and excitement grew. The 2016-17 season was the one when NHL teams started to suspect that the Lightning may have had a superstar on their hands, as he finished the season with 71 points in 57 games.
Right around this time, the Lightning traded Gusev’s rights to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for their word that they would select defenseman Jason Garrison in the expansion draft. Gusev never played a game for Vegas, and was promptly dealt as a restricted free agent (RFA) to the Devils in 2019. From there, he signed a two-year contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $4.5 million.
In 2019-20, Gusev made his NHL debut with the Devils and became one of their main contributors, recording 44 points in 66 games before the NHL suspended the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is roughly a 55-point pace over the course of a full 82 game season.
In 2020-21, the Russian struggled to replicate his success from the previous season, managing only five points in 20 games for New Jersey. He often found himself as a healthy scratch under new head coach Lindy Ruff, and was eventually placed on unconditional waivers for the purpose of mutually terminating his contract.
In April 2021, he signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Florida Panthers for the remainder of the season. He finished the season with five points in 11 games for Florida. And from there, he finds himself on a PTO with the Maple Leafs.
Maple Leafs’ Forward Situation Is Wide Open
I said at the start of the article that as of now, the Maple Leafs have more than enough players, specifically forwards, to ice a roster. And not everybody is going to end up as a regular on the team. But what makes the Gusev PTO so interesting is that he has the chance to be the best player of the ones competing for a roster spot, and he could even end up having the biggest role of their new additions.
With the absence of Zach Hyman this season, the Maple Leafs sent a clear message that the left side is up for grabs in the top six. Players like Michael Bunting, Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, and even Ilya Mikheyev are expected to compete for a role in that top six. And realistically, there’s a good chance we’ll see most of these players get a look in that role until head coach Sheldon Keefe finds a combination that works.
But the thing is, Gusev strikes me as the type of player who will either blossom in training camp, sign a contract, and be their regular top-six left-winger, or he simply won’t make the team at all. That’s what separates him from the aforementioned players like Bunting, Ritchie, etc. The others have intangibles that could render them effective players regardless of where they are in the lineup.
Gusev, meanwhile, is not good in his own end and isn’t much of a physical player either. But on the other hand, he’s capable of putting up at least 40-50 points while the other players still have to prove they can do that. He’s far and away the most talented offensively of the bunch, but he’s also a one-dimensional player. However, he struggled far more under Ruff’s defensive-heavy system, so he could benefit from playing under Keefe’s skill-first system.
The Maple Leafs have hinted that they’re going to try out a defensive-heavy third line centered by David Kampf this season, meaning that the fourth line could be another offensive-driven line with someone like Jason Spezza on it. So you could stick Gusev there, too, if his offense doesn’t deliver as advertised. But even then, if he isn’t scoring, why would you use him in your bottom six when there are other options available who have a good two-way sense of the game?
Gusev PTO Is Low-Risk, High-Reward
What this PTO tells me is that the Maple Leafs are taking a real “boom-or-bust” approach with Gusev. Best case scenario, he has a strong training camp and ends up being a 50-plus point player in their top six for a cheap price. Worst case scenario, he doesn’t outplay his peers in training camp and doesn’t get a contract. Either way, there’s no risk involved.
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The Maple Leafs have seen success from players on PTOs in the past, such as Mason Raymond, and they’re clearly hoping to add Gusev to that list and work another strong forward into the mix as a result. It’s a move that shouldn’t have any repercussions in the end, and it could end up working out in a big way for them.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.