A player who a few short months ago was simply excited to finally be in North America and looking forward to playing for the Golden Knights is now in the middle of a high-pressure negotiation that could force him to be traded for the third time before even making his NHL debut. Nikita Gusev finally made the jump this spring after a phenomenal KHL career and the Russian forward was hoping to take the next step of his career with Vegas. However, the 27-year-old scorer also sought fair value, burning his entry-level deal to negotiate a fair contract. The problem is that the Knights lack the space to meet even modest demands, currently over the cap and with other players to sign. The question now is whether Gusev becomes a casualty of the cap crunch or whether Vegas is willing to move other pieces to retain him.
The Athletic’s Jesse Granger reports that the Golden Knights and Gusev’s camp are currently $2MM apart in terms of AAV on a new contract. Gusev has long been rumored to be seeking at least $4MM annually, while Granger believes the offer on the table is two years at $2MM. Granger estimates that Vegas has just over $2.5MM of cap space to work with after moving David Clarkson to the LTIR, if they make no other moves. However, Gusev is not the only player in need of a new contract, as backup goalie Malcolm Subban, standout collegiate defender Jimmy Schuldt, and potentially veteran leader Deryk Engelland are all in need of extensions. Even if Gusev were to accept the current offer or potentially even if he were to be traded, the Knights would still need to make a move to clear out cap space, so another deal is nearly unavoidable. Granger wonders if the hold up in negotiations is simply the calculus of who Vegas would have to move out to meet Gusev’s demands.
The longer that talks drag on, the more likely a Gusev trade becomes. The dynamic winger is not without fans around the league who would be willing to take a chance at his current asking price. The Hockey News’ Steven Ellis names five teams that have both the interest and the means in cap space and trade capital to acquire Gusev: the Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets, Ottawa Senators, and Edmonton Oilers. Unsurprisingly, three of those five teams – Ottawa, New Jersey, and Columbus – are among the bottom five in the league in payroll and would have no concerns about paying Gusev. Montreal just took a big swing and miss at Sebastian Aho on an offer sheet, so they’re clearly willing to pay up for scoring as well. Edmonton would be a tight squeeze, but the Oilers could desperately use more forward talent to surround Connor McDavid. Ottawa could be most appealing to Gusev if he want to become a team’s centerpiece and boost his public image, while the upstart Devils may be his best chance at winning a Stanley Cup as soon as possible. However, Gusev’s preferences will matter little to Vegas if they do choose to move him, likely opting for the best package of picks and prospects they can find.
A resolution won’t be easy to come by, although both Granger and Ellis agree that the Golden Knights would be better served by keeping Gusev. If the team can figure out their cap situation, perhaps by moving the contracts of non-core players like Ryan Reaves and Nick Holden or Jon Merrill, then keeping Gusev is the ideal move given his ceiling and the potential for Vegas to have the most formidable forward corps in the league. Moving Gusev will likely bring back a nice return in building blocks, but at the cost of could-be superstar. It is not an easy choice for Vegas, whereas Gusev holds all the leverage as a KHL icon but unproven NHL commodity just waiting for his chance to break out, in Vegas or otherwise. So long as he gets paid a fair wage, Gusev is likely willing to begin his NHL career anywhere.