Tuesday, July 2, 2019 | 2 a.m.
The Golden Knights signed a talented Russian winger in April, leading most to naturally assume he would be a fixture in the lineup starting on opening night of the 2019-2020 season.
Now the question is whether he’ll ever play for Vegas.
The Golden Knights have a salary-cap problem, and Nikita Gusev isn’t helping. Gusev will likely debut in the NHL next season either way; the question is for which team.
“We think he’s a really good player. We’d like to work something out here,” Vegas President George McPhee said. “If that doesn’t work out, we’ll look at options. But there’s definitely interest in him. We’ve had people call us on him, and we’ll see what develops.
“He worked hard to get over here, and we’re going to accommodate him one way or another, either here or with another club.”
The initial signing
Gusev signed an entry-level deal in April after an MVP season in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, where he had 82 points in 62 games. He was eligible to play in the postseason for the Golden Knights, but never made it past morning skate.
The timing of Vegas signing Gusev was strategic, as it wanted to lock him into a long-term deal over the summer. If the Golden Knights waited until after July 1 to sign him to his entry-level deal, they could have only given him a maximum one-year deal worth $925,000 and Gusev would become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Instead, McPhee went straight for the entry-level contract to make him a restricted free agent and work towards a multi-year deal. A one-year deal is still possible, but it’s not McPhee’s style.
Trades for Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, for example, were contingent on both players agreeing to long-term extensions. Reports also indicated that if William Karlsson and the team couldn’t agree on a deal, Vegas was willing to trade him instead of letting him play a single, lame-duck season.
The 27-year-old Gusev arguably has limitless potential and only boosted his value in May with a torrid showing at the World Championships where he had 16 points in 10 games.
It’s hard to find a precedent of a player with his ability leaping to the NHL right at the start of his prime.
The two closest would be Alexader Radulov and Evgenii Dadonov, though both examples are imperfect.
Radulov started his career in Russia, then joined the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in Canada before starting his NHL career with the Predators in 2006. He was a fine NHL player, but returned to Russia two years later and was a force, winning four MVPs.
He returned to the NHL in 2016 and has performed just short of All-Star level ever since. Currently with the Dallas Stars, Radulov initially signed a one-year deal worth $5.75 million with the Canadiens.
Florida’s Evgenii Dadonov might be more comparable. Like Radulov, he struggled in his first foray into the league, went back to Russia and came back two years ago under a three-year, $4 million per year contract.
The difference is both were unrestricted free agents with NHL history. Gusev has never played professionally in North America and is a restricted free agent ineligible for an offer sheet.
That means he has virtually no leverage to negotiate with the Golden Knights. Vegas could essentially pick his salary and leave him with no recourse if he’s unhappy — other than returning to Russia, which he doesn’t appear to want to do.
The current conundrum
CapFriendly projects Vegas to have about $2.5 million of cap space after David Clarkson is placed on a long-term injured reserve, but with only 20 players on the roster.
Restricted free agent Malcolm Subban and unrestricted free agent Deryk Engelland are expected to sign, and McPhee said he expected a rookie defenseman to make next year’s team. Those three players could in theory fit at less than $2.5 million. But Gusev could command more than that on his own.
The Golden Knights could fix the issue by trading him. The problem with that route again comes with precedent.
It’s hard to know how to value a player who’s never appeared in the NHL, especially when not many in that situation have been traded.
The Carolina Hurricanes could not come to an agreement with college defenseman Adam Fox this year and shipped him to the New York Rangers in April before his draft rights expired.
He flashed potential at Harvard and fetched Carolina a 2019 second-round pick and a 2020 third-rounder.
In 2016, Nashville was in a similar situation with Harvard forward Jimmy Vesey. The Predators traded his rights to the Sabres for a third-round pick in that year’s draft.
Would the Golden Knights get a Fox package, a Vesey package or want something better? Vegas acquired Gusev’s rights at the expansion draft, so anything it gets back now is a strong return-on-investment in one sense.
But it’s sure not going to feel like it if Gusev turns into an NHL star.
The impending decision
It all comes down to exactly how valuable of a player Gusev will be. If the Golden Knights are confident Gusev’s KHL stardom will translate to the NHL, then they will sign him by clearing cap space elsewhere — perhaps by trading next summer’s free agents such as Cody Eakin, Ryan Reaves or Nick Holden.
If the Golden Knights believe Gusev’s ceiling is a bottom-six forward, where he would presumably begin next season, then they’re probably better off dealing him for high draft picks.
It seems inevitable that another trade is coming. It’s either going to be Gusev or another player so that they can fit Gusev.
The Golden Knights must decide just how good they think Gusev will be and sort out the ramifications that come with that projection.