Nikita Gusev Didn't Work in New Jersey, but Could He Thrive Elsewhere?

The former KHL star couldn't find his bearings with the Devils this year and is on his way out. But could New Jersey's loss be a win for another NHL team right now?
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Nikita Gusev

Nikita Gusev

I was a big believer in Nikita Gusev when he finally came over to the NHL. Albeit, he was with Vegas at the time and there was an opportunity for him to play in a deep lineup with skill all around him, but I thought he was going to be a solid player. 

Gusev came over to the NHL after 332 points in 391 games over nine years and he was the only player to break the 200-point barrier from 2016-17 until 2018-19. Some were calling him better than Artemi Panarin before he jumped over, and the stats definitely gave an indication that was possible. Heck, he had just won the best forward honor at the Olympics just a few months prior after leading Russia to gold. Yeah, it wasn't against the best competition, but he was still the best of what was there, and there was still some pretty darn good competition.

But a 26-year-old jumping ship is a bit different than, say, a 20-year-old prospect, and Gusev's NHL career can be described as anything but pure success. Gusev did have 44 points in 66 games as an NHL rookie with New Jersey last year, but with just five points in 20 games this year – and sitting out as a healthy scratch since March 20 – the Devils placed him on unconditional waivers for the purpose of termination on Friday afternoon.

Is this the end of the line for Gusev? Maybe not. His $4.5-million cap hit this season made him an untradeable asset, but like Ilya Kovalchuk a year ago, Gusev's presence on the free agent market could make him an interesting addition for a team needing a bit of extra offensive boost. Not a huge boost, but if a team took him on for near league-minimum at $700,000, it might be worth a look, because not everything about his game is iffy at this point. There's almost no chance he makes much more than that.

Gusev's -6.7 goals-above-replacement, per Evolving-Hockey, was the worst on the Devils this year, and, honestly, that's hard to ignore. For context: a year ago, Gusev's 6.9 was good for fifth on the Devils and well above Jack Hughes' -3 and near the top among rookies overall (although, we're talking about someone that was around 7-8 years older than much of the class and with vast pro experience). 

Gusev finished the 2019-20 campaign with 2.29 points-per-60 at five-a-side hockey, ranking 51st among players with 400+ minutes played, per Natural Stat Trick. He's a non-factor this season, but Pavel Zacha and Mikhail Maltsev have been his most-used linemates, and with all due respect to those two, that's not exactly high-quality linemates to feed off of. Gusev hasn't deserved better opportunities, but you can only work with what you're given. 

Gusev's average ice time dropped by over a full minute, and he dropped in just about every notable stat. It's worth noting that the Devils are second last in the East Division and only Buffalo (90) has fewer goals than the Devils (97), so it's not like the rest of the team is thriving and Gusev is just trailing behind, either. It's been a rough season as expected for the men in red, black and white, and Gusev didn't do much to contribute his fair share.

Yeah, that's not a huge boost of confidence in his play, but, again, once he got comfortable a year ago, he was able to put up points. And with a good supporting cast around him, that might be able to happen again.

Gusev can be a good playmaker, and his 31 assists last year is a good indication. Gusev bounced around a variety of lines this season and never looked that comfortable, but bottom-six on a lousy team has a different feeling than bottom-six on a top team – especially when you made a career, both in the KHL and in international play, as a key offensive contributor. 

Gusev needed to be better, but things clearly weren't working and a new home might be what he needs. The KHL is currently in playoff action so he won't be signing there to end the season, so if he wants to keep playing right now, he'll need to sign a deal with an NHL team at a very reduced rate. If nothing works out, he can return to the KHL and get back to being comfortable like Vadim Shipachyov did after his rough run in Vegas, 

The termination designation is a win-win for both parties involved. Gusev may have a chance to play again soon, while the Devils clear up a bit of cap space and should leave them with roughly $10 million in room to make a couple of deals. After moving Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac earlier this week, it's not likely they're going to bring any key pieces in, but it gives them the flexibility to address more long-term needs.

What a team would get in Gusev is scoring potential – nothing guaranteed, but the potential of him having the determination to reach the status he once had. He's not good in his own zone and you're not going to expect him to get dirty along the boards, but he can at least make a good play a few times a night – and better than many bottom-six NHLers today. But there are definitely warning signs that he can be a liability on the ice, and if he's not scoring and he's not good in a defensive role, his options are limited.

In short, what I'm saying is he has his flaws, but he isn't a total dud just yet. He'll just never reach the hype placed on him before his arrival, and will make people question the NHL impact of older, top KHL players in the future.

It's hard to just call this season an outlier for Gusev considering he's only in his second NHL season at the age of 28, nearly 29. And there are enough concerns out there that makes me question whether or not a team would take a chance to bring him in for a playoff run. But at a low salary hit, Gusev could be a nice addition to many NHL teams, especially in a year where having a variety of players ready to go from the taxi squad is so important. He's proven he can rack up points, but the situation wasn't pretty in New Jersey. A contending team – Florida would be an excellent home – could use Gusev in a depth role where he has a good support system around him. 

Even if it's just for the remainder of the year and not a day later, it's still worth a shot.

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