Considered to be one of the best players outside the NHL, the Nikita Gusev era appears to be upon us.
Sport-Express' Igor Eronko reported Thursday that Gusev, 26, is on his way to join the Golden Knights after his KHL team, SKA St. Petersburg, was eliminated from the conference final of the Gagarin Cup playoffs. However, before he can ink a deal with Vegas and become eligible to suit up for the Golden Knights, Gusev must receive his release from his current KHL contract, which runs until the end of April.
As of 4:00 p.m. ET on April 11, Gusev's KHL contract was still active, and Russia named him to its initial World Championship roster ahead of the tournament in May.
What does Gusev offer the Golden Knights? The left winger is a dynamic playmaker with impressive top-end speed who uses every inch of the ice to showcase his skill. He would likely slot in on the third line with Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch to start, where he'd add speed and scoring punch and have potential to become one of the best bottom-six wingers in the league.
What put Gusev on the map as one of the best European prospects in the world was his 2017-18 season, during which he led the KHL with 40 assists, was named league MVP, won top forward honors at the Olympics and led the 2018 Winter Games with eight assists and 12 points. Gusev's Olympic contributions were highlighted by his two goals in the final, including the game-tying goal in the last minute of regulation, to lead the Olympic Athletes from Russia to gold. In all, Gusev had 27 points in 19 games for Russia, the most of any player in men's international competition. For an encore, he was arguably better than ever during the 2018-19 season, registering 82 points in the KHL, the second-highest single-season output in league history. Even if you took away Gusev's 17 goals this season, his 65 assists were enough for the 22nd-best total in the league's 11-year run.
Sure, it's the KHL. Nigel Dawes is one of the league's best players and Ilya Kovalchuk had the worst NHL campaign of his career this season after returning from Russia. But according to Dobber Prospects' PNHLe calculation, which projects where a player could slot in on an NHL team based on their production in other leagues, Gusev has the makings of a top-six forward.
Golden Knights fans have reason to be wary of Gusev's arrival after the Vadim Shipachyov debacle last season. After three games with Vegas, Shipachyov departed for Russia after "voluntarily retiring" from the NHL. And there are some similarities between the two players: they're both skilled playmakers with fantastic international resumes. Before Shipachyov made the trek to Vegas, he had impressive chemistry with Gusev, too, the pair sitting near the top of the KHL scoring race in 2016-17. But Gusev's potential is far more intriguing.
Gusev's 336 career points are the most by any KHL player before their 27th birthday, eclipsing Shipachyov, Alexander Radulov and Artemi Panarin. Having Pavel Datsyuk as his center in St. Petersburg surely helped, but Gusev had 36 more points this season than SKA's second-highest scorer, Alexander Barabanov (46 points), and 40 more than Datsyuk (42). Gusev is a better player at 26 than Shipachyov was, and Gusev simply looks too good for the KHL. Shipachyov at least looked human.
So, yes, Shipachyov was a dud, but the Chicago Blackhawks' signing of Panarin and the Florida Panthers' acquisition of Evgenii Dadonov paid off for those organizations. Signing Gusev is a low-risk, high-reward move for the Golden Knights, who could use the additional scoring depth in the playoffs. And Vegas didn't give up anything to acquire him, anyway. The Golden Knights acquired Gusev's rights along with two draft picks from the Tampa Bay Lightning as compensation for selecting defenseman Jason Garrison over other unprotected players at the 2017 expansion draft.
If it doesn't work out, it's not as though Vegas sold the farm to get Gusev. But if he does pan out? Watch out, Western Conference.