Jeff Skinner

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NHL teams seeking free agent bargains should shop for ‘antiques’

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With Jake Gardiner needing a contract, RFAs like Mitch Marner not yet signed, and at least a vague possibility of Rasmus Ristolainen-type players potentially being traded, there are still plenty of things to watch for this summer. It just so happens that, beyond Gardiner and very few others, the UFA market looks about as well-stocked as the bread aisle right before a big storm.

Interestingly, some of the best items in the bargain bins are those dented cans nearing their expiration dates.

During July 1, you generally want to avoid messing with Father Time. Yet, as the dog days of summer go along, there’s actually some logic to considering potentially cheap players with long resumes.

Interestingly, one July 1 signing is an example of the sort of bargain I’d pursue between today and when PTOs start to flow close to training camps in September. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed veteran Jason Spezza on the first day of the frenzy, convincing the 36-year-old to go from $7.5 million in AAV in 2018-19 to $700K in 2019-20.

Spezza might not seem like the sexiest choice in his current form, but that’s almost the point. Now that he’s no longer making superstar money, his positives can shine most brightly, and I’d expect him to be a nice bargain for Toronto.

While Spezza might be the best of the types of bets I’d consider making if I were running a team, there are still some intriguing veterans to consider. To make things clear, here are a few key qualifiers before we roll into some names: this list assumes that the contracts would be short, the dollars would be low, and the players would understand that they might have to swallow some pride with a smaller role than in the past.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The lower level of commitment is important to remember. If a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t work out, it’s easier to walk away from a mistake. That’s certainly an easier pill to swallow than to stare at an awkward situation where, say, Milan Lucic is languishing on your roster at $6M, and stands to be an anchor for years.

With expectations sufficiently lowered and contextualized, let’s consider a few veterans.

Cream of the limited crop

Jason Pominville: Fittingly, the best comparison to Jason Spezza is another Jason with a right-handed shot, and some great memories related to the Senators. (In Pominville’s case, it was scoring against Ottawa, much to the confusion and dismay of Daniel Alfredsson.)

Like Spezza, Pominville’s sneaky-solid production was downplayed because of his bloated salary; in Pominville’s case, his 2018-19 cap hit was $5.6M. At a sub-$1M rate, Pominville could be an economical fit for a team that wants a veteran who can still bring some value to the table, and would probably be willing to move around the lineup to make things work.

Actually, I’d argue he’s probably more versatile than Spezza, and thus might fit into a wider array of situations.

Even with all of their improvements, I’d strongly consider bringing Pominville back at a huge discount if I were the Sabres (and if Pominville would accept it). It sure seemed like he was a decent passenger for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner at times in 2018-19, as The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis also pointed out (sub required):

Pominville was lucky last year to spend a significant chunk of time with Jack Eichel and/or Jeff Skinner, but he was an upgrade on Buffalo’s other right wing options on that line, which only really caught fire when he joined it (climbing from 3.1 to 5.3 goals per hour, and from a 52 percent to 55 percent shot share).

Why not bring back Pominville to occasionally be a cheap addition to the $19M combo of Eichel – Skinner, so you can then use the Marcus Johanssons and Jimmy Veseys as scorers on lower lines, getting them easier matchups? Just a thought.

Similar scenarios could make sense for other cap-strapped teams, too.

Justin Williams: Every indication is that Williams’ choices seem to boil down to retirement or returning to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But just to throw it out there: even during his age 37 season (Williams turns 38 in October), “Mr. Game 7” was more than a guy who shows up in clutch moments. Williams looked almost ridiculous from an advanced stats perspective last season, and brings the sort of intangibles that makes someone a “Storm Surge” innovator.

If I’m another team with some cap space, I’d at least try to wave some one-year money around to see if it might entice Williams to consider branching out. At minimum, Carolina should keep a spot warm for the winger.

Veteran specialists

Brian Boyle: The Predators continued their tradition of paying big premiums for huge depth centers in trading a second-rounder to rent Boyle this past season, so it’s clear that at last some teams see value in Boyle as a large defensive presence who can use that size to screen goalies during the occasional power play stint.

If Boyle costs you big assets, then meh. If he’s cheap and doesn’t command much term, then he could be appealing as the center of an all-defense third or fourth line. (At this stage, fourth would be preferable, but different teams have different situations.)

Thomas Vanek: On the absolute other end of the spectrum, you have Vanek, who would need to be sheltered with limited five-on-five minutes, but might give you some offense in a pinch.

Basically, I’d envision Vanek in the Sam Gagner role during Gagner’s brief time as a power-play specialist for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old managed 36 points in 64 games last season, and scored 24 goals and 56 in 80 games in 2017-18.

Sure, his all-around game makes him less of a net positive overall, but a savvy coach could yield decent returns while limiting risks.

Dented cans

  • Chad Johnson: The 33-year-old’s save percentage was below 90 for the past two seasons, so maybe he’s as done as the former Bengals receiver who shares his name. But if he’d be willing to take on a role as a third goalie – one who could easily be moved between the AHL and NHL – then he could provide some injury insulation. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Johnson generated a solid .915 save percentage, matching Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller during that span. Maybe he still has something to offer, even just marginally so?
  • Dan Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, Deryk Engelland: Here’s a theory: virtually all NHL coaches need that “toy.” Almost every coach has a player they love who … frankly, isn’t really worthy of those minutes and opportunities, yet the coach fawns over them nonetheless.

Consider Alain Vigneault when he searched for excuses to play Tanner Glass in New York, or Mike Babcock’s love of Roman Polak.

Personally, I’d try not to indulge such bad habits in a coach, yet what if the situation basically demands it?

If such affairs are unavoidable, maybe the key is to limit the damage by getting a cheaper option, one who hopefully wouldn’t get too much playing time, either. The hope would be that, if you give an old coach some old, beat-up player, they’d be more willing to also allow a younger player a longer leash.

Yeah … not the greatest situation, and I’d avoid the Girardis, but these GMs know their coaches better than anyone else.

***

Again, it’s crucial to realize that the above list is full of imperfect players, or ones who will only push you forward with baby steps, not giant leaps for hockey-kind. Even ones I like more (Pominville, Williams if he’d listen to offers from outside the Carolinas) aren’t going to save a GM’s job. And with that aforementioned group of veteran defensemen, some of these options would be less about improving and more about accepting lesser evils to appease the sometimes strange whims of NHL head coaches.

In some cases, veteran players might even sign PTOs, which would allow teams to see if they can find a spot in the lineup and chemistry with the team before even handing out a guaranteed contract.

This list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, either, so fire away if you have suggestions. In the case of this post, the veteran UFA options are 32 and older, if that helps.

MORE FREE AGENCY FUN:
Three signings that teams will regret
Five remaining UFAs who could bring value, the mostly young version
Looking at every team’s offseason in Power Rankings form
• The high-risk, high-reward contracts signed on July 1 frequently end in trades or buyouts.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sabres make big strides this offseason, may not be done yet

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It’s tempting to call the Henri Jokiharju trade the cherry on top of a delicious offseason sundae for the Buffalo Sabres, but GM Jason Botterill can’t quite desert his office just yet, as his work might not be done yet.

Here’s a delicious thought, though: the Sabres would be massively improved even if Botterill did decide to close up shop and spend the rest of the summer reclining and sipping cocktails.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Loading up on the right

Really, you can go back to the 2018-19 season to see the Sabres getting proactive about improving their defense, the team’s most glaring weakness. Botterill really started the party by snagging Brandon Montour from the Anaheim Ducks in February, and continued his trend of trading for interesting right-handed defensemen talent by getting a bargain for Colin Miller, then making what looks like a lucrative trade in receiving Jokiharju for struggling prospect Alex Nylander.

Jokiharju, Miller, and Montour could set up a glut on the right, as they’re joined by beat-up blueliner Zach Bogosian, Casey Nelson, and hypothetical trade generator Rasmus Ristolainen. You can basically set your watch to Ristolainen rumors cropping up, either when Buffalo adds a right-handed defenseman, or even if they just add money. Or maybe get out of bed in the morning.

The logic is simple enough. Ristolainen is, in many ways, a lot like former Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Ristolainen and Myers are both very tall, and they both signed contracts after a spike in production, only to slide rather than continuing to climb afterward (in Myers’ case, the shaky contract he signed way back when with the Sabres just expired).

Ristolainen is 24, and his size and respectable skill could make him intriguing to front offices that … well, frankly, don’t really look very deeply into a wide variety of numbers. If it weren’t for lousy plus/minus stats, Ristolainen would check every “traditional” box (four consecutive seasons of 40+ points, big ice time averages), while looking far worse in fancier ones. Take these RAPM charts from Evolving Hockey, which paint the picture that Ristolainen doesn’t bring a lot of value beyond the power play, and you’ll maybe begin to understand why analytics-minded Sabres fans are anxious for Buffalo to trade Ristolainen while there are at least some NHL front offices who still believe in him:

Again, a significant subset of people – analytics folks, plenty of Sabres fans, and those who meet in the middle of that Venn Diagram – have been clamoring for the Sabres to trade Ristolainen for some time, but this summer’s set of moves makes such arguments more credible than ever.

That’s because …

More help for Eichel, possibly with more help on its way?

One more top-six forward, by way of a Ristolainen trade, could really tie this roster together.

To Botterill’s credit, he’s deftly improved another problem area beyond that once-abysmal defense, as he’s given the Sabres more scoring options beyond “Hopefully Jack Eichel saves us.”

The most important first step was keeping the one true running mate that Eichel had, as they signed Jeff Skinner to a monster contract. While you could argue quite fairly that it’s an overpay overall, I’d also rank it as a necessary evil.

But, again, the Sabres’ 2018-19 season showed that they need more than Eichel – Skinner, as powerful as that duo turned out to be. And now Botterill faced the challenge of adding support without breaking the bank, as Eichel + Skinner = $19M in combined AAV.

You know what? Botterill’s done really well in that regard, too.

Jimmy Vesey isn’t a world-beater, but the Sabres courted him for a while, and now they have him for cheap. Vesey and 2018 summer acquisition Conor Sheary rank as the sort of forwards who won’t revolutionize your lineup, but could nudge you toward competence. It doesn’t hurt that both Sheary and Vesey will have the added motivation of contract years, either.

Marcus Johansson might be my favorite recent forward addition, if not favorite single add overall. The Sabres sat out the most frenzied part of free agency, and were rewarded for showing even just a modicum of patience. A few days after July 1, Buffalo added Johansson for an AAV of just $4.5M, and mitigated most of the health-related risks by only giving him two years of term. Splendid stuff, especially since the winger gets a chance to sign a more robust deal if he can deliver during the next two seasons.

That’s all good stuff; now imagine if Buffalo gets greedy.

Again, people get excited about the idea of Ristolainen being traded, as he’s prominent enough to be part of a blockbuster, as his $5.4M cap hit is both movable and large enough to be part of a hefty deal.

Sabres fans should salivate at some of the names thrown out there, as they could provide that one extra piece that truly rounds out a top-heavy offense into being nicely balanced.

Die By the Blade trots out two interesting scenarios with the Winnipeg Jets: perhaps the Jets would cough up transition machine Nikolaj Ehlers for Ristolainen. If not, what about the intriguing combination of young Jack Roslovic and analytics darling Mathieu Perreault? The Jets have been willing to shrug their shoulders at analytics before (see: Myers, Tyler), so after losing Myers and Jacob Trouba, maybe they’d want Ristolainen?

Ehlers, in particular, excites as a buy-low trade, but he’s not the only option.

Honestly, I was half-joking here, yet if the Oilers would bite on Ristolainen for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins trade, poor Edmonton fans might get another taste of Peter Chiarelli-style blunders even after Chiarelli’s been replaced by Ken Holland.

Basically: the Sabres could move from what’s suddenly a position of strength to pull the trigger on a Ristolainen deal, and maybe get a top-six forward who simply brings more to the table, at a comparable cap hit. If it’s Ehlers, that player could pan out and bring a lot more to the table than Ristolainen, who profiles as a deeply flawed player.

To be continued?

All of that said, if the right deal doesn’t sprout up for Ristolainen, the Sabres may also look at next summer as the true feeding frenzy.

The Athletic’s John Vogl paints quite the picture (sub required) of the Sabres courting potential free agents if they let certain expiring contracts fade, rather than re-signing people:

They can take Taylor Hall and Nicklas Backstrom to dinner on Delaware Avenue. Jason Botterill can sip mai tais on a Canalside tiki boat with Alex Galchenyuk, Tyler Toffoli, Torey Krug and Roman Josi. If the Sabres are feeling really frisky, they can wine and dine Matt Murray and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Interesting stuff, and for all we know, Braden Holtby could also hit the market if the Capitals decide to roll that way with another cap crunch impending.

***

Even if the Sabres flip Ristolainen for that elusive top-six forward, they’d still need some things to break their way for this to feel like an immediate success.

Ralph Krueger needs to show that he won’t struggle coaching in the NHL after taking a truly unusual path back to the league, which included a lengthy detour with the Premier League. Botterill didn’t plunge into the goalie market, so they’ll hope for good work from Carter Hutton and RFA Linus Ullmark. It’s conceivable that they still might ask too much of Eichel, particularly if they can’t use Ristolainen for an upgrade. The Atlantic Division also looks formidable, with the Panthers at least spending like winners, along with the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins seemingly slated to make everyone else fight for wild-card scraps.

Overall, though, the Sabres improved immensely — and after the undeniable (but maybe unavoidable?) gamble on Jeff Skinner, they didn’t ruin their outlook in the longer term for the sake of short-term gains. By most accounts, they had a strong 2019 NHL Draft haul, to boot. Other teams looking to take those agonizing next steps from a rebuild to actual contention should take notes of what Buffalo did, and may still do.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Trade: Sabres nab Jokiharju; Blackhawks receive Alex Nylander

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For the last few weeks, a thought has percolated: “Boy, the Buffalo Sabres are … kind of killing it, aren’t they?”

Sure, they might have paid too much for Jeff Skinner, but they kind of had to. After that, they landed Colin Miller for pennies on the dollar, took a flier on Jimmy Vesey, and signed Marcus Johansson to a very team-friendly contract. People also seemed pretty happy with their draft haul. It was tempting to write something praising this offseason for a nice bit of work, but there needed that one extra move to go from “scratching your chin in approval” to outright excitement.

Tuesday’s trade with the Chicago Blackhawks might just provide that extra push, as the Sabres added young defenseman Henri Jokiharju in exchange for troubled (but still interesting, maybe?) prospect Alex Nylander. According to the Sabres, that’s the extent of the trade. There are no picks or prospects to warp things, so this is as simple as it gets: Buffalo’s betting on the young defenseman, while Chicago’s betting that they can pull a Dylan Strome with Nylander by getting more out of the struggling winger than Buffalo ever enjoyed.

Sabres receive: Henri Jokiharju

Blackhawks receive: Alex Nylander

To reiterate, the two young skaters have similar contract situations, too, so this is basically a pure one-for-one trade.

No joke

Considering the fact that Jokiharju was a 19-year-old rookie thrust into a prominent role on a Blackhawks defense that needed any help it could find, he fared surprisingly well. That argument is neatly made when you consider his stats relative to his more-experienced, but in many cases, more limited Blackhawks teammates:

Ultimately, as The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus and others indicate, it seems like Chicago soured on the now 20-year-old, for whatever reason(s). PHT’s Adam Gretz pointed to Jokiharju as a reason to be optimistic about the Blackhawks just earlier today, and now he’s gone.

Jokiharju finished with zero goals and 12 assists in 38 NHL games last season, averaging a robust-for-a-rookie 18:59 average TOI. Along with Colin Miller, he gives the Sabres another promising right-handed defenseman, and that overall defense corps is looking better and better, what with emergence of wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin, along with the solid addition of Brandon Montour. Jokiharju also gives the Sabres yet another nudge toward moving on from Rasmus Ristolainen, a polarizing blueliner who may be better off traded.

But, either way, there’s a lot of promise in Jokiharju, though apparently Chicago doesn’t see it that way.

Another reclamation project for Chicago?

Jokiharju is no slouch as a prospect, as the Blackhawks selected him in the first round (29th overall in 2017) and saw the Finnish defenseman make a remarkably swift jump to the NHL.

Make no mistake about it, though, Alex Nylander carries higher expectations. The Sabres selected Nylander eighth overall in 2016, ahead of the likes of Mikhail Sergachev (ninth), Charlie McAvoy (14th), and Alex DeBrincat (soothe your wounds a bit if you’re a Blackhawks fan, he was an instant steal at 39th).

Nylander, uh, hasn’t lived up to that billing, yet the Blackhawks might see this as a sequel to The Thrilling Redemption of Dylan Strome.

That’s certainly possible, but I have some worries that it will work out that way. Much like with Strome in Arizona, it just seemed like Nylander was running out of chances to stick with the Sabres, but the difference in their AHL play provides some cause for concern. Strome generated 50-plus points in his last two AHL seasons, despite shuttling back and forth to the NHL a bit. Nylander’s AHL numbers are more modest: 31 points in 49 games this past season; just 27 points in 51 AHL games in 2017-18.

It’s more comforting to see your should-be-star at least dominating a lower level of competition as they’re struggling to acclimate to the NHL. Strome showed plenty of signs of that during his tumultuous times with the Coyotes; Jesse Pulujarvi’s limited runs with the AHL tend to result in nice production.

The Blackhawks might have more modest expectations for Nylander, yet you wonder if they’ve significantly undersold on Jokiharju’s value. It’s tough enough to find promising defensemen, let alone ones who are just 20 and are right-handed shots.

This point should be clear: considering how explosive Chicago’s offense can be, if Nylander can’t excel there, then you might just have to fasten the “bust” label to him.

***

Yes, the Blackhawks likely view their defense as improved, and they were hoping to add some supporting scoring. They’ve also had some luck with reclamation projects, particularly (somewhat) similar story in Strome.

As of July 2019, this sure feels like a pretty big win for a Sabres team that badly wants to improve its defensive personnel. If Nylander is the bust many feared, Buffalo managed to avoid squandering his name value. Instead, they landed an intriguing prospect who’s already shown some promise at the NHL level.

If you had to choose a side, and had to project based on what you know right now, who won this trade? Consider my vote strongly in the Sabres’ camp.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Johansson gives Sabres scoring, versatility

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The Buffalo Sabres have added some scoring depth and some versatility with the signing of forward Marcus Johansson on Saturday.

The Sabres and Johansson agreed to a two-year, $9 million deal that carries a cap hit of $4.5 million per season. It’s a good term for Johansson, 28, who can prove his worth over the next two years and parlay that into a longer deal at the end of it.

For the Sabres, they get a player who an excellent left-winger and has the ability, if needed, to play in the middle. As Mike Harrington from the Buffalo News points out, Johansson has won 900 faceoffs in his career thus far but hasn’t played the position much since he was with the Washington Capitals.

Where he plays is still up in the air. He’s likely to start the season on the wing and in Buffalo’s top-six contingent. But the Sabres are thin at center after Jack Eichel and he would certainly see time there if need be. If nothing else, the option is there for a player that can theoretically play any of the forward positions. Johansson’s utility extends to the power play as well.

The Sabres scratched priority No. 1 off their list when they extended Jeff Skinner. They also re-upped on Zemgus Girgensons on Friday.

It’s not nearly as splashy an offseason as last year, but the Sabres are making solid moves to improve their club after it showed flashes last season. I don’t see Buffalo as a team far off from being in the playoff conversation (I figured they were going to be in it last year, so what do I know.) But adding some scoring to a team in the bottom third in the category last season is a good step in that direction.

Johansson has 20-goal capabilities, having done so twice now in his career. He played just 29 games in 2017-18 after a nasty head shot by Brad Marchand and was limited to 58 games this season because of injuries.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Prior to that, Johansson hit the 20-goal mark in 2014-15 and then again in 2016-17, playing the NHL’s full slate of 82 games in both of those campaigns. His possession numbers in those two seasons — 53.1 percent and 52.9 percent, respectively — were his best as a pro, as well.

Johansson is simply effective when he’s healthy and if he can stay that way with the Sabres, he’s a shrewd addition to a team that is only getting better as their young stars get older.

Perhaps there’s a little superstition at play here, too.

Johansson hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2013, making it with the Capitals on four straight occasions before runs with the New Jersey Devils and most recently a Stanley Cup Final appearance with the Boston Bruins.

With the Bruins, Johansson played a critical role, scoring four times and adding seven assists in 22 games. The guy produces.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

Golden Knights could give up a gem if they trade Gusev

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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.

Mysterious value

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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.