The Vegas Golden Knights are struggling to walk a negotiating tightrope with intriguing RFA Nikita Gusev. Other teams should do everything they can to upset that balance by acquiring his rights in a trade.
Vegas? They’re likely to regret trading Gusev to keep players with far less potential.
An exciting talent
It’s hasty to call Gusev “the next” Artemi Panarin. Yet, for teams that couldn’t ferment enough interest to bring in “The Bread Man,” it’s tantalizing to wonder if Gusev could be the next forward to make a successful leap from the KHL to the NHL. While Panarin’s become a full-priced star, he too began his career on the cheap with Chicago; it’s asking too much for Gusev to deliver at that level, but teams should put themselves in position to take advantage of the considerable value he’s likely to bring.
You see, the Vegas Golden Knights currently hold Gusev’s rights as an RFA, yet even after trading away Colin Miller and Erik Haula to clear room, they’re still in a tight salary cap situation. That situation might just squeeze out Gusev.
Golden Knights GM George McPhee acknowledged the possibility of a trade to The Athletic’s Jesse Granger (sub required) on July 1.
“There’s definitely an interest in him,” McPhee said. “We’ve had people call us on him. We’ll see what develops. I can’t tell you what will happen, but we’ll work on it. He’s been very, very good on the international stage. He wants to play in the NHL. He worked very hard to get over here, and we’re going to accommodate him one way or another, either here or with another club.”
There are some interesting mysteries surrounding Gusev, from how a team might land him, to how much of an impact we can expect from a guy who’s found chemistry with the likes of Nikita Kucherov.
It’s not easy to predict Gusev’s NHL impact, but the odds are high that he will make a positive impact. He’s distinguished himself at multiple levels, from international play, to winning the KHL’s MVP for a stirling season where Gusev generated 82 points in 62 games, and was also productive in the playoffs. While 2018-19 marks his peak so far, he’s enjoyed other strong seasons, including generating 71 points in the KHL in 2016-17.
The challenges of translating overseas work to play in the NHL likely make contract talks tricky, but I’d argue it also sets the stage for teams to land fantastic value. How much is Gusev worth before he’s played a single shift at the NHL level, at 26? Would a team be better off going with a one-year deal, or something with additional term? Granger reports that there’s as much as a $2M gap between Gusev and the Golden Knights, which sounds dicey at first. Yet, if Gusev is asking for something along the lines of $4M AAV for two years, as Igor Eronko reports, then the Golden Knights risk throwing away a golden goose.
I’ll say this: I’d risk $4M-ish on Gusev over multiple years of Brandon Tanev at $3.5M, any day of the week.
Beyond the mystery of what Gusev might get paid, there’s also the question of what the Golden Knights might demand in a trade.
Vegas should find better ways to clean up its mess
As a reminder, Vegas is in a vulnerable position; Cap Friendly estimates their space at about $2.675M, and they either need to sign RFA Malcolm Subban or find a different backup goalie option, among other situations to resolve.
Really, potential poor trade return options might be the key factor that wakes up Vegas to the possibility that they’re risking a big mistake.
The Golden Knights would likely be wiser to save money by shedding inessentials; this post suggests that contenders bribe rebuilding teams to take on shaky contracts, and Vegas should explore those avenues multiple times, rather than letting Gusev get away for pennies on the dollar. Cody Eakin‘s a luxury as a bottom-six forward at $3.85M, and likely to move on after 2019-20 one way or another, with that contract expiring. Personally, I see Ryan Reaves‘ $2.755M as a colossal overpay, and trading away that cap hit would also force Gerard Gallant to play a more useful forward, whether that ends up being Brandon Pirri or a prospect like Cody Glass. Nick Holden‘s tough to justify at $2M, either.
Personally, I’d move all three of Eakin, Reaves, and Holden if it meant keeping Gusev. That flies even if Gusev was a bit pricer than $4M per year.
[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]
Gusev could be push a strong VGK team to an even higher level
Vegas is already spending big money to contend, and they already have a strong top-six. In adding Gusev to Alex Tuch (and Cody Glass, if he transitions smoothly), Vegas would create matchup nightmares left and right. McPhee himself told Granger that would be a “heck of a lineup,” so why let that slip through your fingers to keep replacement-level players?
So, again, another team should be swirling like a bloodthirsty shark (and hope that the San Jose Sharks don’t get involved, because Doug Wilson is a beast).
Again, there’s always a chance that things don’t work out — Vegas might be overreacting to the Vadim Shipachyov situation, for one — but you won’t find many better risk-reward values in July.
If Vegas must sell, buyers should swarm
Really, most NHL teams should be in the bidding, although some have cleaner cap situations than others. Here are some of the teams who should be calling McPhee the most:
- Habs Eyes on the Prize discusses Gusev as an excellent consolation prize for the Montreal Canadiens after the Sebastian Aho offer sheet didn’t work out, and this article also provides some insight regarding why Gusev is such an intriguing talent.
- The Athletic’s Rob Rossi offers up a hypothetical three-team trade where the Penguins would get Gusev, give up Nick Bjugstad, and well … it’s a lot (sub required).
- Even after paying up to keep Anders Lee, the Islanders might feel a little bummed out after falling short with Artemi Panarin. Gusev may occasionally drive Barry Trotz up the wall, but would be worth it for a team that could stand to add more skill.
- Winnipeg Jets – Things are going to be tight with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor needing new contracts, but Gusev could help ease the sting of the talent losses of Jacob Trouba and Kevin Hayes.
- Buffalo Sabres – Keeping Jeff Skinner was crucial; landing Colin Miller was uplifting. The Sabres still see a huge drop-off from Skinner – Jack Eichel to everyone else on offense, so Gusev could help to stem the tide. They’re also paying Skinner and Eichel $19M combined, not to mention uncomfortable money to the likes of Kyle Okposo, so the Sabres would likely delight in getting a potential bargain for a change. This would also make their offseason a little less reliant on the smaller move on trading for Jimmy Vesey.
- Columbus Blue Jackets – Maybe the team that lost Panarin could land the “next” Panarin? (Note: again, the comparison isn’t really fair to Gusev … but it’s fun to imagine another superlative talent arriving in the NHL. Hey, it’s the offseason, the time when teams dream that Tyler Myers can be worth $6M.)
- New Jersey Devils – The Devils are aggressively trying to improve, both to take advantage of rookie contracts, and also keep Taylor Hall around. Why not see if Gusev nudges that talent level (and Hall’s interest in re-signing) forward even more?
In a bolder league like the NBA, I’d be certain that all of the teams above, and more, were straining to take Gusev off of the Golden Knights’ hands. The risk is just so small compared to potentially significant rewards.
I’m not sure if there would be as many suitors in the less-creative, more conservative NHL, but all it takes is one team to trade for Gusev to mean a move happens. The Golden Knights would be wise just to remain Gusev’s team, instead, but we’ll see.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.