Nikita Gusev

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Setting realistic expectations for Rangers, Devils, Panthers after big summer

The New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, and Florida Panthers were not only three of the busiest teams in the NHL this summer, they also made some of the biggest and most notable roster transactions.

Blockbuster moves in the summer mean big expectations for the season. Sometimes those expectations can be a little too much based on offseason moves and preseason hype.

So what should fans of those three teams be realistically expecting this season after what appears to be a successful summer?

Let’s take a quick look at each one.

Florida Panthers

Key additions: Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Anton Stralman, Joel Quenneville
How high should expectations be?
Wild card or bust.

The Panthers are not yet on the same level as the the top-three teams in the Atlantic (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto) but there is no reason the playoffs should not be a minimum expectation this season.

They have high-level players at forward and fixed their single biggest flaw from a year ago with the addition of Bobrovsky. How bad was the Panthers’ goaltending last year? Despite allowing the seventh fewest shots per game, they still managed to allow the fourth most goals thanks to the second-worst save percentage (.891) in the league. Even a .900 save percentage would have trimmed 20 goals off of their total, while a league average (.905) mark would have trimmed off more than 30. Bobrovsky has finished just one of the past seven seasons with a mark lower than .910. Even though Bobrovsky won’t play every game, getting that level of play from him over 50-55 games could make a massive difference. Combine that with a Hall of Fame coach and the returning core they have up front and anything less than a playoff appearance should be considered a significant disappointment.

New Jersey Devils

Key additions: P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds, Jack Hughes
How high should expectations be: Lower than they probably are

There is a lot to like about what the Devils did this offseason. They added a potential superstar in Hughes, a superstar defender in Subban, they have a healthy Taylor Hall returning to the lineup, and they added two other intriguing forwards in Gusev and Simmonds. And they did not have to give up anything of significance to do any of it. If nothing else the Devils are going to be a LOT more exciting to watch than they have been in recent seasons and they should obviously be better.

There are just a few problems here. For one, the Devils still have a massive question mark in goal and if things go poorly none of their additions are really going to matter all that much. Goaltending will make or break this team, and the current options are not promising.

The other issue is that the new additions are not without their questions. Subban and Simmonds are both on the wrong side of 30 and have shown some signs of slowing down (especially Simmonds). Gusev is extremely intriguing and full of potential, but is still an unknown that could go either way. There are reasons to be optimistic and if everything goes perfectly well this team could be a factor in the playoff race. But the more “what ifs” you add in to a team the more likely it is that something goes wrong.

New York Rangers

Key additions: Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox
How high should expectations be: Compete for a playoff spot

Thanks to a little draft lottery luck and some major spending the Rangers’ rebuild accelerated in a big way this summer thanks to the additions of Panarin and Kakko. That is a ton of impact talent entering the organization in a short period of time.

Normally spending big money on the UFA market is a fools paradise, but there are always exceptions, and players like Panarin tend to qualify as that sort of exception. He is still in his prime, doesn’t have a ton of mileage on his career, and is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. He is a game-changer. But even with him, Trouba, and young players like Kakko and Fox it may not be quite enough to make up the sizable gap between them and the Eastern Conference playoff teams.

Are the Rangers are a sure-fire playoff team yet? Probably not, because they still have some questions with their depth and defense. But they should be able to stay in the discussion fairly deep into the season. Why should you like the Rangers’ playoff chances more than their arch-rivals in New Jersey? They have what could be (and should be) far better goaltending and seemingly fewer questions with their new offseason additions.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Power Rankings: NHL teams under pressure to win this season

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we turn our focus to 10 teams that should be facing a lot of pressure for success during the 2019-20 season.

“Success” can mean different things for different teams and fanbases, and largely depends on what your expectations are for them. For some teams that are more established success is measured by winning it all right now. For others, it’s simply about making progress and getting closer to contender status.

We picked out 10 teams that are facing both types of pressure. Which teams are they?

To the rankings!

Pressure to compete for (or win) a championship

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. On paper this is the best, most complete team in hockey. The roster is loaded with stars in the prime of their career that have done everything in the NHL except win the Stanley Cup. Until they get it there is always going to be the “yeah, but…” that follows them around, especially now as they come off one of the most stunning postseason exits in NHL history. “Championship or bust” is usually an unfair mentality because it only sets you up for the inevitable disappointment that 30 teams will end their season with, but if it ever fairly applied to a team this would be the one.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs. The most hyped team in the league managed to get even stronger this offseason with the addition of Tyson Barrie to its blue line. It is time, though, for all of that potential to finally turn into something because right now this current core has nothing but a bunch of third-place finishes and first-round exits to show for all of its talent.

3. Winnipeg Jets. The Jets entered the 2018-19 season as a Stanley Cup favorite but faded in the second half, went out quietly in Round 1, and still have to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor to new contracts, a pair of deals that will quickly eat up their remaining salary cap space. They also lost a lot of minutes off of their blue line this summer and did not really do much to replace them.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. Coming off of a Round 1 sweep against the New York Islanders, the Penguins traded a popular, productive player for a lesser player, signed another depth player to a long-term contract, and didn’t really do anything to improve a team that has its share of flaws and has drifted away from the recipe it found success with. They only have a few more years of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and need to do everything they can to maximize them. Have they done that?

5. San Jose Sharks. Losing Joe Pavelski will be a big blow to the offense in the short-term, but this is still a Stanley Cup caliber team, and as long as Joe Thornton keeps returning (we are assuming he will again for at least one year) there is going to be pressure to finally get him a championship. They have everything they need to get there, except for maybe the goaltending, a position they still have not addressed.

Pressure to simply get better … right now

6. Chicago Blackhawks. I don’t know that expectations are necessarily high for the Blackhawks after back-to-back non-playoff seasons, but general manager Stan Bowman has put a lot of pressure on himself for the team to win. His offseason plan has focussed on the short-term and looks like a GM that think he still has a chance to win with his current core. If he is wrong, he is probably the next one to go.

7.  Edmonton Oilers. They changed the general manager and the head coach and both will have a little bit of a leash to turn this thing around. But they have already wasted three of Connor McDavid‘s first four seasons in the NHL by not even being close to competitive, and that is just something that can not continue. Getting a player like that is a gift and the Oilers are wasting it.

8. Buffalo Sabres. The Eastern Conference version of the Oilers, only worse. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since the 2010-11 season while the scorched earth rebuild that was supposed to turn things around has produced … nothing. Sabres fans have been ridiculously loyal and deserve a better product than they have been handed over the past decade.

9. New York Rangers. They had an incredible offseason with the additions of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko. It has absolutely accelerated the rebuild, but has it increased expectations too quickly? This is still a team with several holes and probably isn’t ready to compete just yet. But the pressure will be there, especially as the team still tries to compete in the final years of Henrik Lundqvist‘s career.

10. New Jersey Devils. The additions of top pick Jack Hughes, forwards Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds, and defender P.K. Subban have quickly helped transform the Devils into a team worth watching, especially with the return of a healthy Taylor Hall. Even with all of those additions there is still a big question mark in net and they HAVE to show they can win and compete if they have any chance of re-signing Hall. He is a star that has spent his entire career playing on losing teams and is one year away from being able to pick his next spot. Winning would go a long way toward convincing him to stay.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

What Devils can expect from Gusev

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There is a very strong argument to be made that Nikita Gusev has been the best hockey player in the world that was not already playing in the NHL.

Now that he is officially a member of the New Jersey Devils we will finally get a chance to see what he is capable of in North America.

Anytime a player makes the jump from a European league to the NHL there is always some uncertainty as to what they will be able to do, and that always carries some risk when teams are investing millions of dollars in them. Sometimes the gamble works, and sometimes it does not.

If you are a Devils fan and looking for reasons for optimism that Gusev will be one of the success stories, it is that the players that are most similar to him in terms of age and production in the KHL have mostly succeeded in the NHL.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The table below is a quick breakdown of some similar players.

It looks at what each forward did in their two previous seasons in the KHL (sorted by points per game) and what they then produced after signing in the NHL. As you can see, the players most similar to Gusev have, for the most part, been extremely productive.

Radulov and Kovalchuk are, admittedly, not completely perfect comparisons here because they both had NHL experience before they went to the KHL (Kovalchuk was an NHL superstar) and there was at least some sense as to what they were capable of.

But Gusev’s production is right in line (or better) than what Artemi Panarin, Evgenii Dadonov, Radulov, and Kovalchuk did before making their jumps back to the NHL. All of them are currently top-line forwards.

Kovalchuk’s return to Los Angeles this season is viewed as a disappointment, but he is also significantly older than the others in that group and still managed to score at a 20-goal pace on a miserable Kings team that lacked any offensive creativity around him. The only comparable player that did not have any success in the NHL was Vadim Shipachyov, and the circumstances around his failure in Vegas are still a mystery as that relationship seemed destined for a divorce before it even had a chance to begin. We still don’t know what he could have been capable of with a real shot.

The only other players that really flopped in making the jump (Sergei Plotnikov, Valeri Nichushkin) were not even close to the same level of production in the KHL.

There are still no guarantees, but given his age and what he did recently in Russia there is at least reason to believe he can be closer to a Panarin, Dadonov, or Radulov than a Plotnikov or Nichushkin.

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils acquire Gusev from Golden Knights, sign him for two years
One big question remains for Devils after busy summer

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

One big question remains for Devils after busy summer

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Even during their championship glory days the New Jersey Devils were never a team known for excitement, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as you are winning and competing for the Stanley Cup.

But as the franchise regressed over the past eight years into a pit of mediocrity they were stuck in one of the worst possible positions an NHL team can be in — mediocre and boring.

General manager Ray Shero and his front office have done a ton of work this offseason to fix both of those problems.

They continued their overhaul on Monday by acquiring — and signing — winger Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights for draft picks.

When combined with the acquisition of P.K. Subban, the signing of Wayne Simmonds, the drafting of Jack Hughes with the No. 1 overall pick, and what will hopefully be fully healthy seasons from Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier the Devils have dramatically uploaded pretty much everything about the team.

They added impact talent that not only makes them better, but is also going to be worth watching.

They have done all of that without having to give up anything of value from their NHL roster or farm system. It has been the perfect confluence of luck (winning the draft lottery) and timing as the Devils were armed with a ton of salary cap space to help them load up in the ongoing Metropolitan Division arms race this summer.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Even with all of the improvements the Devils still have one very big question remaining that will probably make or break what happens with their 2019-20 season.

That question: Goaltending. It has been a thorn for the Devils over the past three years as they have finished 27th, 18th, and 22nd in save percentage during that time.

Veteran Cory Schneider was once of the best goalies in the league, but is entering his age 33 season and has not finished with a save percentage higher than .908 since the 2015-16 season. His .908 mark over the past three combined seasons is 35th out of the 38 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games during that stretch. That is obviously not anywhere near good enough.

Mackenzie Blackwood had a promising debut last season, but with only 23 NHL games under his belt he is still a complete mystery. Especially since he did not really dominate at the American Hockey League level before getting an opportunity with the Devils.

The concern here is that if neither one is able to give the Devils an adequate performance in net it can render all of their offseason additions completely useless. There is no position that dictates what happens with a team more than goaltending. The New York Islanders showed us last season that a great performance in net can take an otherwise average team and turn it into a team that is capable of not only making the playoffs, but going reasonably far. Bad goaltending can completely sink a contender.

The good news for the Devils is that even after all of their additions this summer is that they still have more than $12 million in salary cap space to improve their roster and address their remaining weaknesses. The problem is the free agent pool for goalies is completely dry so any potential improvement (if needed) would have to come by way of trade. The Devils do still have all of their future first-round picks to use as trade chips if needed.

The new additions to the Devils lineup are going to go a long way toward putting the franchise back on the NHL map.

They just need to hope two of their returning players can solidify the most impactful position on the ice to make all of the additions worthwhile.

MORE DEVILS COVERAGE:
Devils acquire Gusev from Golden Knights, sign him to two-year deal
Predators send P.K. Subban to Devils
Devils sign Simmonds to interesting one-year contract

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Devils acquire Gusev from Golden Knights, ink him to two-year deal

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The New Jersey Devils continued to bulk up their roster by acquiring Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday and signing him to a two-year, $9 million contract.

Vegas receives a 2020 third-round draft pick and a 2021 second-round pick.

The 27-year-old Gusev was originally a seventh-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2012. He never came over, so the Lightning dealt his rights to Vegas ahead of the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft for Jason Garrison. The forward stayed in the KHL with SKA Saint Petersburg and scored 39 goals and recording 144 points over the last two seasons. Finally, he signed a one-year, entry-level contract in April with the Golden Knights and was with the team during the Stanley Cup Playoffs but did not appear in a game.

The Golden Knights had tried to re-sign Gusev, who was a restricted free agent ineligible for an offer sheet and without arbitration rights, but the two sides were far apart — reportedly $2 million  in negotiations as he sought a multi-year deal. Vegas is so tight up against the cap ceiling that they would have had to move out a few contracts in order to fit his deal. That clearly couldn’t get done.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

“We did our best to accommodate Nikita and his salary request but were unable to do so. He is a good person, a good player and we wish him well in New Jersey,” said Golden Knights general manager George McPhee. “When you have a roster comprised of players who are deserving of a certain salary range you are not always able to make room for everyone. This is the reality of having a good team in the salary cap world. After this trade, we now own nine picks in the first three rounds of the next two drafts. These picks will help boost our organizational depth and add to our pool of prospects. Although we were not able to make this work I am really happy with where we are at with our roster.”

Gusev could have returned to the KHL this summer if he did not sign a contract with an NHL team.

Considering what Devils GM Ray Shero gave up here, this is a worthy gamble to take on a player who is coming off an MVP season and averaged 0.85 points per game in 391 career KHL games. Shero has used this offseason to capitalize on the team’s biggest weapon entering the summer: cap space. After this signing, he still has a little over $12 million, per Cap Friendly, in room to continuing strengthening his roster.

From adding up front with Jack Hughes as the No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft to bolstering the backend by trading for P.K. Subban to counting on a bounce-back year from Wayne Simmonds after signing him in free agency, the Devils’ aggressive approach to the offseason is hoping to pay off in two ways: get them back in the playoffs in 2020 and entice Taylor Hall to sign a long-term extension.

The on-ice product has certainly been improved this summer and keeping Hall in the fold would only continue moving the franchise a positive direction.

MORE: Devils eager for offseason splashes to help deliver wins

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.