The Vegas Golden Knights did something many thought would never happen: they pried Russian left-winger Nikita Gusev out of Russia and brought him over for the team's playoff run.
Unfortunately, a few days later, the Knights found themselves eliminated by the San Jose Sharks before he had a chance to play a game. His deal was just a one-year, entry-level contract, making him an RFA this summer, but Vegas hit the cap once free agency opened up All of a sudden, the star forward from SKA St. Petersburg was put on the trade block, with Gusev expected to join his third NHL team before playing a single NHL game.
Gusev, drafted by Tampa Bay but acquired by Vegas before the Golden Knights kicked off on-ice operations, terrorized teams in the KHL with his hard shot, smooth skating and overall dominance with the puck. His 82 points this season were the second highest single-season output by a player in KHL history, coming a year after he led the KHL in assists (40) and the Olympics in points (12). Clearly, he's too good for the KHL, and the NHL is ready. Dare we say he's the second coming of Artemi Panarin?
But which team will Gusev suit up for in his age-26 rookie season? Of course, you always have to be wary of players moving over after ripping apart the KHL. Vegas learned the hard way with Vadim Shipachyov, who bolted back to his native land after just three games despite being one of the most sought-after free agents two summers ago. But it's a risk teams will be looking to take, because he's low risk at this point, and the reward could be massive.
With that in mind, here are five prime candidates to trade for and sign Gusev this summer:
The Canadiens need help on the wings and a flashy, quick skater like Gusev, and they have $11 million in salary and 12 draft picks to make it happen. Montreal has had luck in the past with Russian wingers – say hi Alex Kovalev and Alex Radulov – and have found some real gems from the country, such as defense prospect Alexander Romanov. The Canadiens didn't land any of the big free-agent targets and could use a boost to push themselves into the playoffs for years to come. Even at two years, the Canadiens can fill an immediate need and either explore future options or keep him in the lineup to play with the strong group of young centers and scoring phenom Cole Caufield on his next deal.
New Jersey Devils
Adding Jack Hughes through the draft and P.K. Subban through trade were two major additions to a Devils team still a few years away from being a top contender. With just a handful of cheap RFAs still left to sign, New Jersey currently sits with $20 million in space and in some need of help on the left side. Taylor Hall already has the top spot open, but lining him beside Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier on the second line could make for a powerful scoring duo. A deal to New Jersey would almost certainly require sacrificing picks, however. Is that worth it for a player with no NHL history while in the middle of a rebuild?
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets have $17 million in salary room to deal with after the departures of Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin and Ryan Dzingel. But the Blue Jackets still have a dangerous group of forwards, and Gusev could improve things further. Moving someone like Nick Foligno to the right wing while having Gusev and Gustav Nyquist as the team's top two left wingers would instantly make the team's top six a dynamic, dangerous group. They have the salary room and the roster space to make it happen, and it would soften the blow after losing a few of their top stars.
The Senators are still in rebuilding mode and have a couple of fantastic prospects in the pipeline, but Gusev is young enough to fit in perfectly. The Sens have some solid depth on the left side, but he's good enough to be an instant upgrade, pushing Connor Brown to the third line, while Anthony Duclair, who was fantastic for the Sens down the stretch, could be a serviceable fourth-liner. With $22 million in cap room, the Sens can afford to overpay if it means adding an extra 25 to 30 goals for a young forward that can stick around long term.
Since drafting him first overall in 2015, the Oilers have been on the lookout for a left winger capable of skating alongside Connor McDavid. Gusev might be that guy. Gusev is a fantastic shooter, but he really thrives in setting up his linemates, evidenced by his 65 assists with SKA last year. The issue, of course, is that Edmonton has just $3 million in salary room right now and have a load of poor contracts on the roster, so it's not like a salary dump is possible. If the team could move Sam Gagner's contract at $3.15 million – and he played quite well after a trade to the Oilers last season – they'd have enough room to sign Gusev for a couple of years and address one of Edmonton's biggest holes in the lineup (but far from the only one).
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