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Why the Maple Leafs should be interested in signing Nikita Gusev

For better or worse, the most reliable trope I have in my hockey analysis is that I’m a sucker for buying low on skill. If I were an NHL GM, I’d have to be stopped dozens of times a year from making waiver claims, and I don’t think I’d ever use my own pick in the 6th or 7th round ever again, as those picks would be long moved for reclamation projects.

Often, these players go nowhere. Sometimes, they’re big hits – the Leafs are enjoying one in Alex Galchenyuk right now, an acquisition that you’d be in no way surprised to know that I was on board with. A month and change later, we’re knocking at the door again.

Why? Because Nikita Gusev was just placed on unconditional waivers for contract termination purposes, offering up a prime opportunity to get a talented player for pennies on the dollar.

Gusev’s name has been a mainstay in the hardcore hockey mythos for quite some time now. Originally drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 7th round of the 2012 draft, the Moscow native opted to stay in the KHL well beyond the usual schedule of an NHL prospect. It’s not hard to see why, though, as his play in Russia quickly made him into a homegrown star, eventually catching the eyes of juggernaut SKA St. Petersburg, allowing him to skip on the entry-level price tag and AHL time and go straight to the mid-high end income tier at home. Before crossing the pond, Gusev put up four consecutive point-per-game seasons, including an 65 assist and 82 point effort in just 62 games in 2018/19. His efforts made him a four-time all star, an MVP, a Gagarin Cup winner, a two-time World Championship medalist, and an (NHL-less) Olympic gold medalist. For many, he was seen among the best talents outside of the show.

Back in North America, his rights changed hands twice in this stretch. Once from Tampa to the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017 as an Expansion Draft protection sweeter, and again in July of 2019 to the New Jersey Devils. In the latter case, the team had secured a commitment from the player, signing him for two-years at a $4.5 million cap hit. At first, the deal worked out great, with the winger putting up 44 points in 66 games in his rookie season, but this year has been significantly less productive for him, as he’s put up just five points in 20, often finding himself a healthy scratch. The Devils previously tried to put Gusev on regular waivers earlier in the month, but due to his cap hit, found no biters in a very tough market.

According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Gusev appears keen to continue his NHL season somewhere else. This makes a lot of sense in this case. While European players who terminate their contracts usually tend to head home, the KHL is already deep into its playoffs. Even if this next destination is his last handful of games before going home (I’d imagine this would be dependent on results and offseason interest), staying in the league will be his fastest route to playing more hockey and re-proving himself.

The obvious question on this mostly Toronto-focused blog is whether or not he would be a fit with the Maple Leafs, and, unsurprisingly, I lean towards yes. Granted, as I explained in the introduction, that’s my lean with pretty much any undervalued, low-cost skilled player who has shown signs of success in this league, but Gusev really fits this bill. For one, he’s only a season removed from high-end results. Gusev was in the 98th percentile of Primary Assists last year (or 7th in the league), putting up more of them per hour at 5v5 than even Mitch Marner. He finished 2019/20 with 2.29 points per hour at 5v5, ranking 51st among players with 400+ minutes played.

Those are first line numbers, and while they’ve obviously dropped off for him in a big way this year, you can’t help but wonder if a guy who has done nothing but score throughout his pro career can find his way back. This wonder becomes even more apparent when you note that he as an individual shooting percentage of just 4.4% this year, and a 5v5 on-ice shooting percentage of just 2.25 – meaning that the entire team is shooting at about a third to a quarter of the league average while he’s on the ice, which goes beyond bad touch and into bad luck, and is especially damaging to production. Gusev’s positive shot attempt differentials add credence to the idea of misfortune, though the large disparity between his Corsi and his Expected Goal Share does lead one to wonder if there’s a quality issue at play. His most frequent linemates this year have been Pavel Zacha and Mikhail Maltsev, which isn’t the most alluring duo.

What I see potential for here, should Gusev want it, is a situation similar to Galchenyuk’s, likely minus the AHL stint. A low-cost deal for the remainder of the season, an opportunity to work with the development staff down the stretch, and after that, they can try to integrate him into the roster. If it doesn’t work, there’s no harm or foul and Gusev can decide his next destination in the offseason. If it does, he raises his stock for an extension or a new destination and Toronto (or another team, should he go elsewhere) gets a middle to top six forward with playmaking skill on the cheap.

Toronto comes with a slight disincentive in the seven-day quarantine that he’ll have to undertake to come up north, but comes with the advantage of a development staff with a good reputation, an opportunity to compete for a championship, and even some familiarity. The first place I went to check when looking for potential landing spots were Gusev’s CSKA rosters, to see where his teammates were at. As it turns out, he has two former teammates playing in the NHL on competitive teams right now – New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterikin, and… Maple Leafs forward Alexander Barabanov.

Obviously, a signing like this would be contingent on his interest, and I’d imagine that the Leafs are far from the only alluring fit. But they do check some boxes, just like he does for them. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, but if nothing else, I think it would be prudent to at least check in on him after his termination tomorrow.

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