The Montreal Canadiens have another chance to make a big splash in this free-agency period after offer-sheeting Sebastian Aho, this time by trading for Russian star Nikita Gusev. It might seem a bit strange that a team like the Vegas Golden Knights would so willingly part with a high-value asset, but there is a reason.
Jesse Granger of The Athletic reports that Gusev and the Golden Knights are up to $2 million apart in terms of salary, and with the Knights already pressed against the salary cap, they’re likely to move him out rather than allow negotiations to drag on.
Both Erik Haula and Colin Miller have been shipped out, though the team still sits $2 million over the cap’s upper limit (via CapFriendly) and still needs to sign three more players. Even considering that David Clarkson will be placed on LTIR, there is not enough cap space to get those deals done, have some room for in-season moves, and try to avoid a cap overage by operating above the upper limit. With Gusev not yet under contract, he may be the pressure-release valve the team opts for.
According to Igor Eronko, Gusev is looking for around $4 million a year over two years, which is easily digestible for the Canadiens. Montreal is loaded with draft picks (12 in 2020), and prospects, and that’s the type of asset it should take to bail a team out of a cap crunch.
Vegas isn’t dealing from a position of strength, given that their financial situation is public. Marc Bergevin has the ability to make another splash in the first week of free agency by landing one of the top players outside the NHL last season. He didn’t land Sebastian Aho after Carolina matched the offer sheet he presented, but he still might land a player for his top six.
Gusev is a master in the art of deception. All players are taught to mask their intentions with the puck on their stick, which improves the success rate of plays as the defence reacts late to the moves, but Gusev really takes it to another level. He doesn’t just use his head (looking off from a passing target) or the position of his body to misdirect defenders, he commits entirely to a move and will only subtly diverge in the very last moment to confound opponents.
It speaks to his understanding of the game and especially of the expected defensive reactions. He knows which manoeuvres lead to which counters and uses that fully in his offensive game. It was quite beautiful to watch in action from his time in the KHL.
The clips below show common two-on-one situations, and the pass or shot fakes are also common strategies, but it’s the execution that separates Gusev from others.
In the first clip, Gusev is showing “shot’’ to the goalie, but freezes him at the last second by pushing his top hand away from his body and opening up his blade like he is passing across to his teammate, then the winger quickly closes his blade back and rotates his body to instead slide the puck five-hole on the netminder.
In the second, Gusev once again fully commits to a shot, shoulder and head pointed toward the net, outside leg raised, hands off his body, but changes his firing motion into the pass across.
The plays are very similar. The difference between the two is in the defender’s stick in the middle of the ice. In the first instance, it covers the passing lane. In the second, it doesn’t. These are the sort of details that Gusev can recognize quickly and allow them to dictate his choice of play.
Nikita Gusev wears #97 with SKA
Clips taken from Nikita Gusev’s highlights
He can be just as deceptive in transition. In the video below, Gusev faces a two-on-two in the neutral zone. He sees his teammate is cutting across with a speed difference. He focuses the attention of the defence on himself and points his body and stick behind his teammate’s. This way he masks his eventual passing lane to the defender in front of him. As his teammate gains a step on the last defender, Gusev hooks a pass into space, allowing his fellow forward to accelerate into it and get a chance alone with the goalie.
As mostly a playmaker, Gusev often will use the passing lane if available, but can just as well shoot the puck home. He loves to fire with the release point at his hip or behind his body. In this position, he can fire, pass or switch to a dangle easily. His feet are not often pointed toward the net in the offensive zone, but he instead releases using the torque of his body, trading power for the surprise factor.
He has the ability to consistently get open as an option, see the ice, and anticipate player movement to redistribute passes shortly after the puck hits his stick. He finishes the play below by turning a defender around multiple times before scoring with a screened release.
This is not play he can replicate exactly in the NHL; defenders are better and more mobile. But, contrary to many KHLers who come overseas, the higher tempo of the top league in the world shouldn’t be as much of an issue for Gusev. He shows that he can identify options and quickly hit them. He can be dangerous with a second or two to make a play.
That said, his game isn’t without concerns. He is likely a slightly below-average NHL skater. His hunched-over stance doesn’t let him maximize his stride length and the same technical flaw takes away from his potential quickness. He also stands at under 6’0”, probably won’t be winning many hard puck battles, and isn’t as elusive as other smaller forwards.
Those flaws would likely impair some of his ability to have the same success in the NHL. As he is a soon-to-be 27-year-old — not a young prospect anymore — it could also take him some time to relearn to be effective on the smaller ice and develop a sound enough defensive game.
Even with those deficiencies in mind, his overall creativity and offensive talent are rare, and more than worth a short-term bet.
Montreal needs to add a quality roster player after shipping out Andrew Shaw and falling short in their offer-sheet bid. Nikita Gusev appears to be there for the taking if Bergevin takes a chance, and if the Golden Knights are willing to do business again after last summer’s transaction. It’s a risk worth taking, and one that Bergevin needs to explore with unsigned options running out.