After trading for forward J.T. Miller at the Draft and signing blueliner Tyler Myers on the opening day of free agency, the Canucks roster for the 2019-20 season is starting to take shape.
The team has been busy this week on the forward front, adding Justin Bailey and Tyler Graovac and re-signing Tyler Motte and Josh Leivo, but there are rumblings they are still looking to add a top-six forward.
One player the Canucks could target to solidify their top-six is 26-year-old RFA Nikita Gusev of the Golden Knights. Gusev, who was originally drafted by Tampa Bay 202nd overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, is a Russian KHL winger who is set to make his NHL debut. Vegas has run into cap issues and have already traded Erik Haula and Colin Miller this offseason to shed salary. Jesse Granger of the Athletic reports Gusev may be next to go.
According to Granger, the Golden Knights and Gusev are not close on working out a potential two-year deal.
“The sides have negotiated over the last few weeks with both seeking a two-year deal, but the gap between Vegas’ initial offer and Gusev’s asking price is as wide as $2 million per year, according to a source close to the negotiations.”
Gusev is arguably considered the best player in the world who is not currently playing in the NHL. He has been a point-producing machine for SKA Saint Petersburg in the KHL over the last four years and was named MVP of the league last season. Gusev has recorded 119 goals and 332 points in 391 career KHL games and was one of Russia’s top scorers when they won Olympic Gold at Pyeongchang. Gusev also showed his potential when he represented Russia at the World Championships this spring, tying Nikita Kucherov for the team scoring lead with 16 points in the tournament.
Gusev has a sick skill set that includes a lethal shot, good speed and fantastic playmaking ability. He’s an intelligent and creative forward who can make a major impact on the power play. Having played with SKA St. Petersburg since 2015-16, some of his highlights out of the KHL are jaw-dropping.
Gusev is too talented for Vegas to want to move him. They just can’t afford him. According to Cap Friendly, the Golden Knights are actually the only NHL team that is currently over the cap. The NHL cap for 2019-20 has been set at $81.5M and Vegas is currently at $84.2M. Even if they do find a way to work Gusev into the picture, he’s likely starting on the third line simply due to their stacked top-six lineup. Take into consideration the Golden Knights’ cap issues and Gusev not being guaranteed a top-six role and you can see why he may be making his NHL debut with a team other than Vegas.
Why it makes sense for the Canucks
Elias Pettersson is a world-class talent who is only going to get better. After Pettersson, there’s a drop-off in elite-level talent on the Canucks roster. Bo Horvat is one of the best two-way centers in the game and Brock Boeser is one of the best snipers. The team could use a player like Gusev to take them to that next level. If acquiring J.T. Miller is good enough for fans to feel confident in the top-six entering 2019-20, than the top-six could be set. Having Gusev, though, would give them that added element of skill. After all, there’s a reason the team has been rumoured to be targeting a top-six forward in free agency.
Trading for Gusev would take some of the pressure off younger players who are expected to take on a bigger role in 2019-20. Whether that be a player like Jake Virtanen or Adam Gaudette, Gusev could give them that reliable offensive production if things don’t get off to the ideal start next season. Gusev is also looking for short-term contract, meaning if his KHL success somehow doesn’t translate to the NHL level, the Canucks can chalk up their loss after a couple years and not have his contract on the books when Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes need new deals in 2021-22.
Why it doesn’t make sense for the Canucks
Gusev is a proven goal-scorer in the KHL. He’s yet to produce (or even play) at the NHL level. There’s always a risk when a European player comes over the North America. Success internationally doesn’t always translate to North America. In Gusev’s case, though, when you watch his highlights and see his consistent production over the years, it’s hard to see him not being an impact player at the NHL level.
The problem for the Canucks however, is that they simply don’t have the assets for a trade like this. Vegas is also unlikely to want to trade Gusev to a division rival. The price of trading the Russian star to a Pacific Division team would almost certainly drive up the return cost.
The projected contract
Gusev is one of the best players who has yet to play in the NHL and he’s going to get a decent deal. Take a look at the last two players who came to the NHL from the KHL. Ilya Kovalchuk signed a three-year deal with Kings last offseason worth $6.25 million per year, while Vadim Shipachyov signed a two-year contract with the Golden Knights in 2017 worth $4.5 million per year.
Gusev had a whopping 82 points last season. Kovalchuk and Shipachyov both scored more goals in their final KHL season but neither has an 80-point KHL season to their name. It’s been reported Gusev is looking for around $4M per year for two years. Given his age and offensive upside, that should be a risk worth taking for many NHL teams.
.@IgorEronko suggests here that Nikita Gusev is looking for $4M x 2 to come over to the NHL. Vegas doesn't have the cap space to pull that off, but if the trade acquisition cost is low, I think there are plenty of teams that should take this risk. He's got a ton of upside. https://t.co/doLLt5I2jJ
— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) July 2, 2019
The Canucks cap situation
The Canucks currently have around $5.6M in cap space, according to Cap Friendly. They have 14 healthy forwards signed to NHL deals and still need to get Brock Boeser and Nikolay Goldobin under contract. Antoine Roussel, who is recovering from knee surgery, will also need a spot when he returns at some point this season. The only way this is working for the Canucks is if they can unload contracts. Loui Eriksson is making $6M against the cap in 2019-20, while Brandon Sutter will be making $4.75M. Eriksson has a NTC and Sutter has a modified NTC.
The Canucks unloading contracts in a trade for Gusev is exactly what Vegas wouldn’t want to do. They’re trying to get under the cap. The Canucks would need to make a separate trade with another team who needs to reach the cap floor. There isn’t much of a market for Sutter right now given his injuries and decline in production. Keep in mind that that the buy-out period for 2019 is now closed.
If the Canucks can find a way to free up that cap space, Gusev would be a great final piece to solidify their forward group for 2019-20.
Gusev is an unreal talent and it will be exciting to see him make his NHL debut. Given the Canucks needs and what Gusev brings to the table, they should at least consider if a trade for the Russian forward is possible.
With Boeser unsigned and having some unfortunate contracts on their current roster, the Canucks are in tough if they wish to pursue Gusev.
Gusev is scoring at a significantly higher rate than Artemi Panarin was before he came over to the NHL. There’s the potential for the Russian to become a special player at the NHL level. Despite the Canucks own cap issues, opportunities to acquire top-level talent for your top-six don’t come along often and Vancouver would be smart to look at their options when it comes to Nikita Gusev.