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Nikita Gusev Would Be Intriguing Plan B Option If New York Rangers Fail to Land Artemi Panarin

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Gusev, like Panarin, made a name for himself in the KHL. Vegas Golden Knights’ current cap crunch could make him available.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 14 Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The luxury of cap space and having a handful of restricted free agents to sign gives the New York Rangers a ton of flexibility this summer. The number one player to sign for the Rangers, and many other teams, is Artemi Panarin. But if not Panarin, another worth considering is Nikita Gusev.

Having qualified the important RFAs, the team is under no rush to sign them, and could conceivably look to add someone like Gusev to the roster before taking care of Jacob Trouba and company.

On Sunday I looked into a scenario that would see Panarin become a Blueshirt. If the team were to miss out on him, there are alternatives.

You may be asking yourself, “why Gusev?” but there are a couple of reasons why he could help round out the Rangers’ top six. The first reason is that the Rangers may be able to acquire him on the cheap and sign him to a contract that’s considerably less than what Panarin will command.

Without factoring in Karlsson’s expected $5.9 million cap hit, the Vegas Golden Knights are up against the cap, despite being in the league for just two seasons and having the chance to build a team from scratch through the expansion draft.

Cap Friendly

According to Cap Friendly they are at $83,124,999 with 19 players signed. Even though they will eventually be able to put David Clarkson on LTIR and receive relief to the tune of $5.25 million, they’re going to need to clear cap space.

This means unloading some contracts, and in order to get teams to help; they’ll likely have to add a sweetener like Gusev. The 26-year-old was selected in seventh round of the 2012 draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning, and he’s yet to play in the NHL. He was sent to Vegas prior to the expansion draft, along with a second-round pick in 2017, and a fourth-round pick in 2018 so that the Knights would take Jason Garrison in the expansion draft.

Gusev signed a one-year entry-level deal with the Golden Knights in April, but he didn’t appear in the playoffs. This appears to have been a timing thing, as Gerard Gallant didn’t want to tweak his lineup based on how the series was going.

Via NHL.com:

“He’s working hard and getting in shape,” Gallant said. “The guy just finished playing [in the KHL playoffs], so it’s not like he has bad conditioning. I’ve got a good lineup right now. I’m happy with it, so it’s more of that than him, trust me.”

Gusev wanted to play, but it ultimately never came to fruition.

“That would be awesome for me. I can’t wait to debut in an NHL game,” Gusev said through a translator Wednesday. “It’s about the team. I just want to help the team. If coaches and the team need me, I will be prepared for the game and show the best I can.

”I’ve done a lot of stuff in the KHL throughout, but now I want to play in the best league in the world. That’s my goal.”

The current RFA forward has widely been considered one of the best players outside the NHL, and he simply puts up points.

Stats via Elite-Prospects

Since becoming a full-time KHL player — meaning no splits of seasons between leagues — Gusev has appeared in 384 games, and posted a line of 132-232-364 (0.95 P/GP). This represents his age 21-26 seasons, and highlights some growth as a player. There’s obviously the fear that his numbers are being inflated from playing on a stacked SKA team, but this season he was far and away the team’s best player.

I spoke to Blueshirt Banter Foreign Correspondent Alex Nunn for some insight on Gusev, and here’s what he had to say.

Great skater with excellent patience and vision. Possesses a high-end shot that he can get off from anywhere. Dangerous playmaker, especially on the power play where he loves to setup from below the goal line and through the slot. Distributes smartly and rarely wastes the puck in possession. Has super soft hands and a catalogue of dekes to beat defensemen one-on-one. Defensive game is neither a weakness or strength.

These are all things that would be of value to the team, and why the Rangers should be interested in him.

Gusev led his team with 82 points this past season; in second place was Alexander Barabanov with 46 points in 58 games. Because it was a situation where — outside of Gusev — it was scoring by committee, he played the role of playmaker tallying 65 assists. He also scored 17 goals, but the leading goal scorer was Nail Yakupov with 23 tallies in 47 games.

Gusev also tallied 19 points in 18 playoff games, and then posted a line of 4-12-16 in 10 games while representing Russia at the World Championship (tied with Nikita Kucherov for most on team, second overall during tournament).

The obvious question becomes; how would Gusev’s production translate to North America, and is it worth taking on a bad contract, or two, in order to acquire him?

When I asked Alex he said, “I think the uptick in physicality will be an adjustment, but his puck skills and offensive game should translate just fine.”

Using Manny Perry’s KHL conversion factor for NHLe, Gusev’s 82 points in 62 games is equal to 80.9 NHL points. His prior season is equal to 70.2 points, and the year prior to that would be 76.2 points. These are all solid seasons, and would be a help to the Rangers, especially since he’s a left wing that is right handed.

When I asked Alex for a range, he said:

Linemates and special teams are a factor, but I think 60’s a solid bet for his floor next season and he could go anywhere beyond that. Kind of player who can absolutely pile up points on a good power play.

The obvious question then becomes, what would it cost the Rangers, and is it something that would make sense for them in terms of taking on salaries in the context of also taking care of their other RFAs? The Rangers can’t just acquire Gusev straight up, and in order for Vegas to be willing to move him, they’d need to get some financial breathing room in the process. And if they trade for him; Gusev will need a contract.

Chris Johnson of Sportsnet speculated that the Golden Knights could shop Max Pacioretty or Paul Stastny, but neither make sense for the team — even though Pacioretty grew up a Rangers fan, dreaming of playing at MSG in a big playoff game for the Blueshirts.

Removing one of them would help solve the team’s problems, but it could be hard for Vegas to shop one of them, because any trade would have to involve futures as the team isn’t in a position to take back salary. In terms of competing, Vegas is better off trimming some of their excess fat this summer, and once there’s a sense of how the team plays with Mark Stone now in the fold, then it could be worth considering moving one of their core pieces if necessary.

One of the easiest things would see the team trade David Clarkson’s contract, and then make another deal to clear the remaining space. Colin Miller ($3.875 million, three years) is a player whose name has been been throw out there, and moving his contract would get the job done, although it would make the team weaker in the process. Miller no longer makes sense for the Rangers, but he’s someone they could have considered prior to the Trouba trade.

Colorado Avalanche v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

With that said, one player that comes to mind is Erik Haula, who played both wing and center, and was limited to 15 games last season. He carries a cap hit of $2.75 million, and is under contract for one more season. He’s a solid possession player — holding a shot share percentage of 50.10 in 2017-18 and 61.79 in 15 games last season — and could be a good fit in the bottom six if the Rangers move on from some players like Jimmy Vesey and Vlad Namestnikov.

Another would be Cody Eakin, a 28-year-old center who carries a cap hit of $3.85 million for one season. Eakin improved his play for the Knights in his second season in Vegas, finishing with 41 points in 78 games — a 14-point improvement from the year prior. The Rangers are deep at center, but could fit him in if they were to send a center back to Vegas.

There’s also the potential of Vegas buying Eakin out, as they’d create $2,566,667 in space this year, and carry $1,283,333 in dead space the following year, but being free and clear of everything now is more ideal for Vegas. And just buying out Eakin wouldn’t solve their problem.

That brings us to Ryan Reaves, a player the Rangers wanted to sign last season, and one who’d free up a good amount of space for the Golden Knights.

Reaves is in the final year of his contract worth $2.775 million, as he opted to stay in Vegas via free agency instead of joining the Rangers. He’s a fan favorite in Vegas, but his contract is one that the team may not be able to keep.

Reaves is know for his physical play, but finished last season with nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points. Given the Rangers’ previous interest, he’s certainly someone the team could offer to take in trade if it meant getting someone like Gusev.

With that said, a trade could probably look something like this:

  • Nikita Gusev
  • (1 of) Ryan Reaves ($2.775 million), Erik Haula ($2.75 million), Cody Eakin ($3.85 million)
  • David Clarkson’s contract ($5.25 million)

There’s also the chance Clarkson doesn’t waive his NMC, which he could choose not to for tax reasons, and in that scenario the Rangers could essentially take on two of the listed deals, Gusev, and a draft pick to balance things out. But in the hypothetical laid out further below, Clarkson decides to waive his NMC.

As for the return, since Vegas can’t afford to take back cap space, and the Rangers are more or less doing them a favor, the return would be on the light side. In many ways it is a deal that really hasn’t happened before — since it is hard to remember a team being in this much cap hell — and one of the assets the Rangers would be offering the Golden Knights is cap space.

Even after this trade the Knights will need to clear space in order to fill out the rest of the roster, and that will require some creativity, and potentially a promotion of prospects to provide cheap labor and some calculated buyouts.

Brett Howden would be the main piece heading back, as he just counts $863,333 against the cap, and would be a replacement for Eakin on the third line, and a potential No. 2 center in the future if/when they decide to move Stastny.

Howden was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning 27th overall in the 2016 draft, and turned 21 in March. He made the team out of training camp, and didn’t spend anytime in the AHL, which is impressive for a player making the jump from Junior.

He spent five games with the Syracuse Crunch after his 2016-17 Junior season ended, and as an 18-year-old tallied three goals and an assist for four points. Howden finished his first pro season with 23 points in 66 games (0.35 P/GP), which is a pretty respectable number.

He had some growing pains in New York, but he should continue to improve into an average second-line center, or a high end third-line center. The Rangers could also offer a draft pick to balance things out, but it doesn’t make to speculate on which year or round it would be at this point.

It seems low on paper, but the bulk of this trade is the Rangers creating cap space for the Golden Knights. Vegas isn’t getting a top prospect, and while Howden isn’t a prospect anymore; he’s shown what he can do and offers some upside.Theoretically this could be tweaked, but the concept would be Gusev as the main piece coming to New York, and Howden the main piece heading back to Vegas.

In essence, the trade more or less reads Brett Howden, and millions of dollars in cap relief for Nikita Gusev. And if the Rangers are absorbing a considerable amount, there’s only so much Vegas can ask for in return for the Rangers to do the deal. That’s because while Gusev is a nice to have, the Rangers would be perfectly fine with walking away entirely and considering other options.

If the Knights wanted more assets in return, they’d have to include draft picks or prospects for the Rangers to be willing take on additional cap space and contracts. I don’t think that’s a game New York wants to get into, nor does it make sense.

Here’s a potential look at what the roster could look like.

Cap Friendly

This hypothetical includes:

  • Jacob Trouba signing for $7.25 million for six years
  • Nikita Gusev signing for $4 million for three years
  • Pavel Buchnevich signing for $3 million for two years
  • Tony DeAngelo signing for $2.75 million for two years
  • Brendan Lemieux signing for $1 million for one year
  • Jimmy Vesey traded to the Buffalo Sabres for futures (pick or prospect)
  • Brendan Smith burried in Hartford
  • Adam Fox starting the season in Hartford

I think $4 million and three years is a fair number for Gusev, because that’s exactly what the Panthers paid to bring Evgenii Dadonov from the KHL. Gusev could get a little more, but the main point is that three years is a good length, because the Rangers can’t sign him for one year — as he’d head to unrestricted free agency — and they don’t want to over-commit in term if he doesn’t prove to be a good fit.

As you can see, this roster includes Chris Kreider (someone the Rangers may trade because of his impending free agency), Vlad Namestnikov, Ryan Strome, and Kevin Shattenkirk still on the team. It also includes Jesper Fast on the roster without a position. The only reason that appears that way now is that I didn’t know what type of hypothetical to propose for either forward. If the Rangers were to go down this road, it is likely they’d be able to move at least one at 50% retained. And then there’s the uncertainty with Shattenkirk, but this iteration works with his salary included, so maybe the team ends up keeping him for at least another year.

@HockeyStatMiner has another idea, and his involves taking care of all other business, getting up to the cap, and then signing Lemieux and DeAngelo after putting Clarkson on LTIR. His method involves some different valuations for players, and this way could work too.

This is just a hypothetical, but there’s a lot to like about Gusev. This could be a low-risk opportunity to add a really good 27-year-old winger to the fold, and do so by weaponizing cap space just like the New Jersey Devils did by taking on P.K. Subban’s $9 million cap hit for three seasons.

The deals the Rangers would absorbing may be one year, but the Golden Knights are in a bind and need cap space now. Instead of calling J.G. Wentworth, they can call JG; Jeff Gorton.

Before Panarin was a household name in the NHL, he too was making waves in the KHL. And when you consider what Gusev has done in recent years, there’s reason to believe he could step into the NHL and generate similar results.

Stats via Elite-Prospects